SALT LAKE CITY — The Libertas Institute has ranked Utah's cities by how "free" they are, and the state's capital city placed dead last.
While Salt Lake City is apparently the state's least free city, the rural Heber City ranked highest for "individual liberty, private property rights and free markets," according to the libertarian organization's Freest Cities Index released Wednesday.
"We're pleased that the index appears to represent that we don't have burdensome regulations on our citizenry," said Heber City Manager Mark Anderson. "I'd like to think it's reflective of a mayor, council and staff that successfully balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the community."
But David Everitt, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's chief of staff, said Utah's capital faces unique challenges as the state's densest and most economically prosperous city, so it must strive to maintain its "high standards for public safety."
"We make no apologies for making every effort necessary to protect those who are vulnerable and to ensure that basic life safety needs are being met in a robust manner," Everitt said. "This city government is very sensitive to its residents, and I think if there was a real concern about the level of regulation, then our residents would be making that clear, not a libertarian think tank."
After analyzing Utah's top 50 most prosperous cities, the index produced a score by weighing 100 metrics, including free speech, gun regulations, alcohol sales, city debt, business permit fees, sales taxes, city-owned enterprises and animal restrictions, among others.
"City governments throughout the state are in sore need of transparency and accountability," said Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute. "We routinely hear from Utahns who are frustrated with their city yet lack the knowledge or time to investigate the issues that matter. This index provides a huge leap forward in both educating and empowering individuals throughout Utah to make a positive change in their community."
Salt Lake received its best scores for low restrictions on beer sales (by not imposing any day or time restrictions on the retail sale of beer) and having an easily searchable database for city laws. But its ranking was dragged down by having strict gun restrictions, regulating campaign contributions, charging high business licensing fees, imposing high sales tax burdens and requiring a permit to stage protests.
Salt Lake regulates firearms in ways inconsistent with state and federal laws, such as prohibiting carrying a firearm in parks. The city's limits for mayoral race donations max out at $7,500, and $1,500 for City Council candidates. For business licensing, the city charges $111 for a home occupation license, $264 for a small commercial license and $12,897 for a large commercial license.
Surprisingly, while Salt Lake ranked low for animal restrictions, it stood out as being one of the most accommodating cities for chickens, allowing the fowl to reside in residential areas on some of the smallest lots in Utah.
Heber City, however, received a higher score by not requiring protest permits, having no campaign contribution limits, placing no specific city regulations on firearms, owning no enterprises that compete with the private market and imposing a low sales tax burden on its residents.
"Heber did really well across the board," said Josh Daniels, a policy analyst at the Libertas Institute. "Salt Lake would be well-served by looking at some of its neighboring cities and repealing some regulations, especially by rethinking gun restrictions and reducing some of their city fees for licenses and permits."
But Daniels did acknowledge that ranking cities can be like comparing apples and oranges.
"At the end of the day, Salt Lake is very different from Heber," he said. "In our index, we found smaller, more rural cities tend to do better, and larger urban cities tend to fall to the bottom. If you move to a smaller town, the government is going to be smaller and less involved."
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3. Woods Cross
4. West Haven
6. North Ogden
Least free cities
1. Salt Lake City
4. South Salt Lake
5. American Fork
8. West Valley