Salt Lake County residents get final chance to weigh in on 16.2 percent tax increase
Ben Brewer, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Emotionally charged opposition surrounding a proposed countywide tax increase continued during a public hearing Thursday, though a posting error prevented a vote from taking place.
The Salt Lake County Council will vote on its proposed 2013 budget, including a possible 16.2 percent tax increase, at a special meeting at 7 p.m. Friday. The council will be accepting input up until the vote.
Mayor Peter Corroon's original proposal called for a 17.5 percent increase. Corroon, who will be succeeded in January by fellow Democrat Ben McAdams, was not in attendance Thursday night, eliciting criticism from at least one resident, which was met by cheers.
"Where is the mayor that I voted for?" Scott Evans said as he stood to offer his comments, highlighting the impact the recession has had on his small business, which now employs 12 fewer individuals than it did four years ago.
McAdams also did not attend the public hearing.
Thursday's public hearing came after a barrage of negative public comment during Tuesday's County Council meeting, where residents decried the idea of a tax increase during a time of recession.
Hostile comments continued for more than an hour Thursday as emotional county residents stood before the council and admonished its members to close recreation and senior centers, cut county employee pay and pensions, eliminate subsidies and seek volunteer help in order to stave off the cut, drawing applause and cheers from the small audience.
The proposed tax increase would cost the average homeowner in the county an estimated $59 per year, as well as $18 to support public libraries.
The increase is intended in part to manage the county's deferred maintenance, renovate aging facilities and restore lost wages and benefits to county employees, county officials said.
Darrin Casper, chief financial officer, addressed the audience prior to public comment, outlining the impact inflation has had on the county's ability to function.
Possible cuts would have resulted in closure of recreation centers, senior centers and libraries, as well all layoffs for county employees, he said. Within the sheriff's office, cuts would have required closure of Oxbow Jail.
"Inflation has been eating away at our budgets," Casper said, citing an increase in the general consumer price index, which has climbed 32 percent since 2001.
As Casper explained the mayor's reasoning behind a tax increase rather than continuing cuts to fight inflation, Peter Liacopoulos, who who did not speak during the public hearing, raised a large cardboard sign at the back of the room with a simple message handwritten in black marker: "Are you for real? SHAME!!!"
Partway through the meeting, the sign was replaced by an upside-down American flag.
Matthew Bone argued that he has been hit by rising inflation along with the county.
"We've had those costs go up too," Bone said. "My pay has gone down 10 percent in the last 10 years."
Before leaving the meeting early, County Council Chairman David Wilde took a moment to affirm that he opposed to increase and intends to vote against the proposal Friday, though he "probably" would have supported a smaller tax increase.
"(Families) just have to find ways to cut and live within the means they have," Wilde said. "Government needs to be more willing to approach their problems in the same way."
Donna Case, who also attended Tuesday's meeting, proposed seeking educated volunteers and "creative solutions" to manage concerns in the county, rather than establishing an increase that she anticipated would force stay-at-home moms into the workforce.
"You're going to be taking my children's mother away from them," Case said, lamenting the disposable diapers and prepared meals that would take the place of home cooking and cost-saving cloth diapers that she has made a priority in her home.
Nate Jensen, of Herriman, returned to offer public comment to add to his statements from Tuesday about the "silly tax hike."
"There are other states that are doing just fine with lower property taxes than Salt Lake County takes in," Jensen said.
"I like the Hogle Zoo," he said. "Just let me pay for it when I go. If I have to pay more, fine. That's my problem. Don't tax us for this."
The five people who stood in support of the increase spoke of the benefit county programs offer the community and people in their lives.
Gary Bowen announced he supports the increase, saying he spoke for the "silent majority" that had not turned out for the meeting.
"The county has already made over the past few years substantial cuts, which no one in this audience has recognized tonight," Bowen said. "We are on the cusp with a new administration and a new Congress of seeing an increase in our economy. The county needs to prepare and provide the basic services for that growth that's going to take place in the next year."
Bowen's comments drew a smattering of applause and a chorus of booing from the vocal crowd.
Christopher Lee, who identified himself as a 26-year-old new father, said as he looked to the future, he imagined his young daughter someday checking out a book from the library and learning to dance at a community rec center.
"I want you think about a world in which there is no art, and there are no libraries," he said. "That's not a world I want to bring my little 10-month daughter into."
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