Salt Lake County Council approves a property tax rate increase

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, second from left, speaks after taking the oath of office on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2019 during the Salt Lake County Council's work session meeting. Left to right are Ann Granato, Ghorbani, Arlyn Bradshaw, Richard Snelgrove, Max Burdick, and Aimee Winder Newton.

The day Christine Hansen bought her home 17 years ago in Millcreek was “the happiest day of my life,” she told the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday.

But since then, Hansen said her property taxes have risen dramatically, to the point that she feels “it’s going to force me to sell. And that was never a goal of mine when I bought my house.”

“I thought I would be there forever,” she said, her voice breaking.

Hansen was one of more than 30 people who spoke during a public hearing Tuesday against a proposed property tax rate increase for 2020 that is expected to have an impact of about $30.36 per year for the average family.

Among those who addressed the council were young homeowners, retirees and business owners, several of whom came armed with their property tax bills and others who shared their challenges paying more to the government while living on a fixed income.

“You’ve got to say no,” said West Jordan resident Mike Laws. “No more taxes.”

The council went on to approve the projected 7.8% tax rate increase with a 7-2 vote.

That’s a lower rate than the 8.7% originally proposed by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. And while Councilman Steve DeBry, who called himself a “fiscal conservative,” said he doesn’t like raising taxes, he stood by the budget, noting $6.5 million council Republicans were able to slash.

“We’ve cut a lot of stuff and we tried to do everything we could,” he told residents after the public comment hearing closed. “But it came to a threshold where we had to say, ‘We can’t cut any more’ because I can’t in good faith say, ‘We’re shutting down a senior center or Meals on Wheels or a rec center’ or whatever else we’re doing.”

Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove and Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, both Republicans, voted against the net $1.4 billion financial plan.

“There’s another $5 million or so in proposed cuts that I believe would have made this a better budget,” explained Winder Newton, who is running for governor.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah House of Representatives District 30 incumbent candidate Mike Winder is congratulated by his sister and Salt Lake County Council chair Aimee Winder Newton at the Salt Lake County Republican Party Organizing Convention at Cottonwood High School, Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Salt Lake County hasn’t raised property taxes since 2013 but was prompted to do so this year to keep pace with inflation, according to Darrin Casper, the county’s chief financial officer. Though home values, incomes and population have risen steadily over the past few years, the county hasn’t been able to capture any of that new growth in its property taxes.

The county also faced several structural challenges in putting its budget together this year that led to the increase. Some $4 million had to be allocated to fund a high-profile 2020 election and operations at a new 3rd District Court the Legislature created but did not financially support.

At the time she presented her budget this fall, Wilson said that without a tax increase there would be “no choice” but to shutter county recreation centers and programs for the elderly and to risk services provided by the county clerk, treasurer and sheriff.

On Tuesday, she thanked residents for coming to voice their opinions on the budget, recognized the impact the tax increase may have on them and promised to help find solutions for those with finite resources.

“The comments that affected me tonight were stories of people who are on fixed incomes who are maybe not seeing the benefits of a hot economy and the prosperity that we enjoy,” she said. “And I have a lot of empathy and concern for those of you who feel this is a reach.”

Among the cuts the council made to Wilson’s proposed budget were $500,000 from the county’s Office of Data and Innovation, a new full-time employee from the county assessor’s office and a position in the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office, Casper said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson makes a comment at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Oct. 1, 2019.

But the approved tax adjustment, though lower than the one presented in Wilson’s proposal, is still “structurally sound,” Casper said. It is expected to bring in about $15.9 million in revenues with an impact on the average business of about $55.20 per year.

Despite the trims, the council opted to fund Wilson’s major recommendations.

Those include a living wage increase for employees making less than $12 an hour and a 2.75% increase to full-time employees with no increase to health care costs. The council opted for an additional 0.25% increase for employees in the technical trades, where market wages are increasing at a faster rate.

The County Council also voted to increase resources to stabilize pay for jail workers with $3.5 million meant to stem high turnover rates.

“I think both the mayor and the council kind of considered that a mandate,” Casper said.

The council approved, too, a 60% increase in funding to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases in the district attorney’s Special Victims Unit. That $763,568 will be used to hire six full-time employees.

With one in three families in Utah impacted by domestic and sexual violence, Councilman Michael Jensen said everyone can agree that’s an area of “high importance.”

But the Democratic and Republican members of the council disagreed over his proposal to withhold funding for two of the positions as an extra oversight measure to ensure the resources are actually used for SVU.

“The council sees this as a top priority and we want to make sure those attorneys are dedicated,” Jensen explained.

Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani said she was “very uncomfortable” with the proposal, which she felt would force survivors of sexual violence to wait for justice. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill also pushed back on what he saw as an attempt to micromanage his office.

“I respect your oversight," he said, “but understand the challenge I have in running an institution where I have to make day to day and hour to hour decisions.”

The council ultimately approved the SVU proposal along partisan lines.