Voters in Salt Lake County just passed Proposition 1, 56 percent to 44 percent, allowing the county to raise property taxes by $47 million to fund construction of regional parks and trails. We wonder whether that result would have been different if outgoing County Mayor Peter Corroon had decided not to wait until after the election to announce his intention of raising property taxes another $30.9 million to fund general operations.
In any event, it would have been nice information to have.
It is important to note that the mayor's proposal is only that — a proposal. It cannot be enacted without the support of a majority of the County Council, and council members are free to modify or reject it, subject to the mayor's veto powers. The public will have plenty of opportunity to respond before any official action is taken.
Corroon and other county officials say a tax increase is necessary to fend off more cuts to essential services. It also would restore benefit and salary cuts county employees absorbed at the height of the recession, and it would set aside $8.5 million to help tackle the county's enormous deferred capital maintenance problem, which will become even larger with the addition of the parks voters approved in Proposition 1.
The backdrop to this is a population increase of roughly 140,000 new residents since the last tax hike in 2000, along with inflation in fuel costs for county vehicles and food costs for jail inmates, among other things.
We understand the concern. Many private businesses have had to deal with the need to contract, lay off employees or reduce salaries, or a strategy that combines these. The salaries for many jobs are lower today than they were four years ago, and there is little sign they are returning to those levels in the private sector. That makes the need to restore compensation cuts to county employees questionable. In addition, the 140,000 new residents have provided the county with greater tax revenues. It is true, however, that Utah law does not allow the county to automatically capture the money needed to cover inflation. It is also true that the county's elderly population is growing, putting a strain on the county's human services programs. Deferred maintenance is one need we feel the county must address to a greater degree.
All of this, however, must be weighed against the average county resident's ability to pay more during a time when the private sector is struggling and unable to simply pull more money from the economy the way a government can.
We're heartened by newly elected County Mayor Ben McAdams' statements that greater efficiencies ought to be the first goal before resorting to tax hikes. Certainly, the county has had to cut and squeeze over the past four years. Private businesses have done the same, and for many, the end is still not in sight.
But McAdams won't be in office before this budget is set. We urge the existing council to do all it can to minimize or eliminate Corroon's proposed tax hike.