Unfortunately for politicians and bureaucrats, there are not separate taxpayers for schools, public debt repayments and the city's general fund. There is but one set of taxpayers in any governmental jurisdiction, and they pay all levies from all local taxing entities, as well as whatever the county, state and federal governments want to charge them.
There is wisdom, then, in the reasoning Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker stated in an op-ed in this newspaper on Sunday, when he said he would veto any property tax increase the City Council may send his way in coming weeks. As Becker noted, the Salt Lake City School District just approved a property tax increase of $12.65 per year for every $100,000 of assessed property (after, we note, board members petulantly scolded state lawmakers for not taxing more on their end, giving apparently scant thought to the forgotten taxpayer).
Adding a city tax hike to this, Becker said, "would hamper the ability of many small businesses to recover." Despite the challenges of mounting unfunded repairs to roads, Becker said the city needs to pass a tax-neutral budget that keeps the city operating with basic services and facilities.
Those City Council members who favor a tax hike do, however, make a compelling case of their own. Last year, the city repaired only 5 miles of asphalt, and the mayor's budget calls for another 5 miles this year. To apply new asphalt to all city streets every seven years, which would be ideal, would require 245 lane miles of overlay annually. But the city hasn't come close to that sort of schedule in years, meaning the needs have backed up. In addition, the city's fleet of vehicles, its sidewalks and parks need attention.
But every $1 million in new revenue would cost the owner of a $250,000 home about $7.20 more per year. That's the same homeowner who now is paying well over $30 more per year to the school district, and who also had to pay more in federal payroll taxes this year. Some members of the school board dismissed their tax hike as little more than having to forego a pizza night once a year, but in the end taxpayers are left feeling as if they have been hit with a pie.
We suggest the city compromise. Rather than raise taxes, simply forego the immediate construction of a new Broadway-style theater, which would be partially funded by the city. Voter-approved funding for a new public safety complex ought to proceed, but why not delay other projects funded in recent years by voter-approved bonds? After all, those voters might have felt differently had they been given the full picture of how crumbling roadways would require a tax hike in addition to the projects they were considering.
Salt Lake City is in a unique position. As the center of commerce and tourism for a large metropolitan area, it has the burden of providing services to a day-time crowd several times its population. The city has done a remarkable job of this despite tight resources. But the city also has to remain competitive against a host of ambitious suburbs when it comes to attracting and retaining businesses and persuading people not to move elsewhere.
The mayor is right. Times still are tough, and taxpayers have been asked to do enough. But members of the City Council are right, too, in that important infrastructure should not be neglected perpetually. But if extra money is to be spent, it should be found somewhere other than the taxpayer's wallet.