Property taxes are doubling in three Utah cities and rising in 56 areas — mostly to pay for teachers, police and firefighters

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Raschell Davis works with her fifth-grade students at East Midvale Elementary School in Midvale in 2017. The school is in the Canyons School District, which is seeking a 9.45% property tax increase, about $140.32, to pay for an increase in teacher salaries.

Brigham City residents escaped property tax increases for the past 18 years, but they may have to make up for it in a big way.

Local leaders propose to more than double the city’s taxes on a typical-value home there from $132 to $279 each year. That 111% increase is the largest by percentage proposed among local governments in the state this year.

“We’ve been losing property tax buying power because of inflation,” City Administrator Jason Roberts said. Instead of making small increases through the years to keep up, he said officials avoided them and the painful Truth in Taxation hearings that they trigger — where angry taxpayers sometimes pour into city hall.

After years of delay, the city no longer can avoid a tax hike needed for adequate police and fire protection, Roberts said. “We are definitely in that boat.”

Brigham City is one of 56 cities, towns, school districts, water districts and other local governments statewide proposing property tax hikes this year, according to information obtained from the Utah State Tax Commission.

Like Brigham City, two others towns are proposing to essentially double taxes: South Weber in Davis County and the town of Hideout in Wasatch County.

Providence in Cache County is proposing a 68% increase. Salina seeks a 55% hike. Sandy and Alpine each want tax increases of about a third.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Another 10 cities and towns seek increases between 20% and 30%. And six want to raise them between 10% and 20%.

Many school districts seek tax increases, mostly to raise salaries amid intense competition for teachers. Similarly, many cities are proposing tax hikes to improve police and fire protection, and to stop the loss of officers to cities with better pay.

Truth in Taxation

Property owners statewide this month are receiving property tax valuation notices that show proposed property tax hikes by their local governments — and a schedule for required Truth in Taxation hearings in August, where taxpayers may ask officials to lower or eliminate them.

Howard Stephenson, a former state senator who is president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, praises the Truth in Taxation law — although he concedes that the required, painful hearings sometimes scare officials into waiting too long to raise taxes and result in extra big increases when they do come.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Howard Stephenson, president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

“We just did a study among cities that shows property taxes still have risen faster than growth and inflation,” he said. “That was a real eye-opener, so we don’t think we should relax the Truth in Taxation law at all. Without Truth in Taxation, the situation would be much worse.”

While Brigham City waited 18 years to raise taxes, South Weber, seeking the second largest increase, says it has never raised taxes since it incorporated in 1972. No. 3 Hideout did not do so since it incorporated in 2008 and the mayor of No. 4 Providence can’t remember a tax hike there.

Stephenson often says officials have reported that after “taxpayers show up with pitchforks and hanging rope, they would rather run across the state naked than go through Truth in Taxation again.”

Teacher salary wars

Fourteen school districts statewide seek property tax hikes, mostly to raise salaries to remain competitive with neighbors in the fight for teachers.

Some notable increases include: 12.3% in Murray ($122.91 on a typical-value home there); 9.45% in Canyons School District ($140.32); 7% in Park City ($115.16); 5.9% in Jordan School District ($77.54); and 4.22% in Davis County ($58.74).

“Yes, it is absolutely to address the national teacher shortage,” Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said about the tax increase there. He said district officials “travel as far east as New York and as far west as Seattle to find the top teaching talent for the district’s classroom.”

The new increase in Canyons is providing a $7,655 pay hike for all its teachers, and those at the top of the scale will now be paid more than $80,000 a year, Haney said starting pay will be $50,000 a year — tied with Murray for top in Salt Lake County, but behind the $50,700 starting pay in Park City.

The salary competition started two years ago when Park City dramatically raised its teachers’ pay, and others scrambled to follow suit and hold onto their teachers. Park City this year is in the third year of a three-year contract that raises salary steps and implements a planned-for tax hike to pay for it, said Todd Hauber, the district’s business administrator.

“I don’t think competition has that much to do with it,” said Murray School District spokeswoman D. Wright about her district’s tax hike and pay increase. “We’re just constantly trying to reinforce the belief that teaching is a destination profession and to elevate the role of a teacher in our district.”

Davis County School District spokesman Christopher Williams said the tax increase there “definitely is part of the need to step up the effort to compensate teachers as much as we can.”

He said that’s difficult in a bedroom community area such as his that lacks a lot of industries. “We don’t have the ability to raise taxes like others are doing, so we’re kind of in the middle of the pack with salaries.” But it is still funding a 7.65% pay increase, and starting salaries will be $43,798.

Police and fire improvements

Numerous cities seek tax increases mostly to help improve police and fire service.

For example, Sandy is considering a 33% tax hike ($79.79 on a median-priced home) to pay for five new police officers and seven new firefighters. Last year, the city used extra money for raises in those departments, saying they were not competitive with other agencies along the Wasatch Front.

“Right now Sandy has the lowest property tax in the valley. After the increase, it would be the third lowest,” said Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The city of Sandy is considering a 33% property tax hike to pay for five new police officers and seven new firefighters.

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood had proposed a 31% property tax increase to fund raises for police officers and firefighters, but the City Council rejected that, avoided a tax hike (and a Truth in Taxation hearing) and approved smaller raises.

Alpine and Highland are spending more for fire service after Cedar Hills pulled out of fire service in the multi-city Lone Peak Public Safety Department. Alpine is proposing to raise property taxes by 33% ($129.68 on a median-priced home). But Highland decided instead to raise city utility fees by $11.50 a month to pay for fire protection (which also avoids a Truth in Taxation hearing).

Cities proposing the biggest property tax increases in the state often also say they are needed for public safety. Brigham City, with its 111% proposed hike, and South Weber (proposing a 100% increase, or $136.62 on a median-priced home there) are switching from depending on volunteers or on-call firefighters to professional departments.

Providence is proposing a 68% tax hike ($129.68 on a median-priced home). Mayor John Drew said it is needed to pay for increased charges by neighboring Logan for the fire service it provides to the smaller city. “We really don’t have any option,” he said.

Other reasons

Big tax hikes in some other areas come for reasons ranging from the fairly mundane to the bizarre.

On the mundane side, Salina is proposing a 55% increase ($117.40 on a median-priced home) because the “the [city] buildings down here in Salina are 100 years old, and are falling down,” said Mayor Jed Maxwell.

It is hoping to build a new combination city hall, library and police station, plus a new swimming pool. “The problem with these little towns is they don’t generate enough income to keep up with their rising costs. Every time you do a project you get a raise in taxes,” Maxwell said.

Meanwhile, an unusual political situation is leading Hideout, a town of 938 people on the shores of Jordanelle Reservoir, to seek a 97% tax increase, or $131.68 on a typical home there valued at $532,000.

“The developer was also the past mayor,” said Town Administrator Jan McCosh. The developer also controls 75% of the land area. “And the former mayor/developer is delinquent on almost all his taxes, which means we don’t have funds to run the town” without the pay increase.

McCosh also said the former mayor is suing the town to be reimbursed for installation of such things as the water system and roads.

While McCosh said state law apparently allows that, “We’re trying to figure out why our citizens are being taxed by a special service district for that infrastructure. The local district doesn’t talk to us. ... We’re trying to untangle a lot of messes.”

She said the tax hike was needed in part “to hire competent people” to sort out the problems.

Other Wasatch Front tax hikes

Most proposed tax increases are small in Salt Lake County — besides those already mentioned in Sandy, Canyons School District, Jordan School District and Murray School District.

Salt Lake City is proposing a 1.62% increase, or $12.86 on a median-priced home The city’s library district is proposing an additional 0.54% increase, or 83 cents.

West Valley City seeks a 0.52% increase, or $2.58 on a median-priced home.

Alta is proposing a 3.6% increase, or $30.86. Bluffdale seeks a 12% increase, or $48.95. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which provides water from the Central Utah Project, is proposing a 5.82% increase ($4.45).

Among tax increases in some other larger cities along the Wasatch Front, Layton seeks a 25% increase ($60.70 on a median-price home); Spanish Fork proposes a 15.2% hike ($21.11); Tooele seeks 10.5% ($28.02); Kaysville wants 6.9% ($22.27); and Orem proposes 6.1% ($11.96).