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Utah taxpayers facing city, county and school tax hikes

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7 2013 6:35 p.m. MDT

Custodian Tim Griffith works in the custodial workshop at West Jordan Elementary School, accessible only by walking through a classroom or from outside, in West Jordan on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. The Jordan School District is asking for a 501 million dollar bond for schools. If they get it, West Jordan Elementary will be torn down and rebuilt.  (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Custodian Tim Griffith works in the custodial workshop at West Jordan Elementary School, accessible only by walking through a classroom or from outside, in West Jordan on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. The Jordan School District is asking for a 501 million dollar bond for schools. If they get it, West Jordan Elementary will be torn down and rebuilt. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — At a recent Salt Lake City School Board meeting, a parent dismissed a proposed tax increase as simply one "pizza night" each month.

Last week, a Jordan School District official compared the individual cost of a nearly $500 million bond to a daily candy bar or can of soda.

It's a common sentiment as policymakers and concerned citizens extol the large benefits a small contribution can make.

But Utahns may find themselves going without more than a monthly treat and a daily snack as school, city and county tax increases combine, targeting homeowners' wallets from all sides.

"It’s hard to believe that taxpayers will be willing to stomach these kinds of massive tax increases," said Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. "We’ve got, statewide, 46 property tax increases separate and apart from bond proposals."

Van Tassell said the number of municipal tax increases is above average this year, but not an all-time high. In past years, there have been as many as 93 tax increase proposals statewide, he said.

But independent of the overall number of proposals, the year is unique in the size of individual requests, notably Jordan's half-billion-dollar bond, Van Tassell said.

"This is one of the largest bonds, certainly the largest bond proposal in my time with the association," he said of Jordan's proposal, which was approved Tuesday by the school board and will appear on the ballot in November.

If approved by voters, the bond will add an annual tax burden of roughly $240 for the average homeowner.

In addition to that cost, Salt Lake County residents are facing a $59 tax increase and an additional $18 for the county library system.

"Anytime people see a tax increase, it's not very palatable," said Michelle Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office. "We haven’t raised taxes in several years. We’ve really waited for the climate to improve in the county, and we’ve raised our taxes to the minimum we thought was necessary to continue our critical programs that people in the community rely on."

In Salt Lake City, a truth-in-taxation hearing will be held Thursday on a tax increase that translates to $70 each year for the average homeowner. On Tuesday, the Salt Lake City School District voted 6-1 to approve a $3.25 million tax increase that will cost the average homeowner $27.50 annually. Salt Lake City residents will also be subject to the countywide $59 increase, but will not pay the county library tax.

Other municipalities in Salt Lake County are also considering tax hikes, including Taylorsville and West Valley City, and Murray City School District is considering a tax increase that would cost the average homeowner $27 each year.

"Folks that are living in Salt Lake County are facing a multitude of proposed tax hikes," Van Tassell said. "It's disappointing that Salt Lake County seems to have an ever-increasing appetite to consume taxpayer dollars."

Sandy Riesgraf, spokeswoman for the Jordan School District, said the district is sympathetic to the constraints on residents' finances. But she said voters should consider the bond proposal separate from the tax increases levied by local government.

"Every household, they’ve only got so much money to go so far, but we hope they look at us independently because our needs are independent. They’re unique," Riesgraf said. "We need money to continue our job of educating students. We have to put them somewhere, and we need buildings now."

Jordan School District held an open house for its new Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman this week. Despite the added space of a new facility, Riesgraf said Copper Mountain will open near capacity in the fall, and already the school's basketball courts are set up to house portable classrooms in the future.

"To have a new middle school open and opening at near capacity, we knew that we just can’t build them fast enough, and I think that’s really telling of what’s going on in the south end of the valley," she said.

With most truth-in-taxation hearings being held this month, Van Tassell said its important for residents to become informed on what's being proposed and voice their concerns to policymakers.

"Now is the time for taxpayers to let their elected officials know that they’re just not willing to tolerate these kinds of massive tax increase," he said.

When asked if there was a concern public opinion could shift when faced with city and county tax increases, Riesgraf referred to a recent survey conducted by the district that showed 80 percent of respondents in favor of a bond.

"We feel pretty good about that," she said. "We feel pretty positive that it is what our taxpayers will support out here."

On the Jordan School District bond, Van Tassell said the Utah Taxpayers Association will soon be meeting with district officials to discuss cost-saving and facility-maximizing alternatives that could hopefully bring down the cost of needed funding. Until that meeting is held, the association will not officially oppose or endorse the proposed bond, he said.

"We’re hoping that we can work with them to find some opportunities that will benefit students, that will benefit taxpayers, that will be a win for everybody and not need to see these kinds of massive tax increases but still improve the education of students in the Jordan School District," Van Tassell said.

In Cache County, residents will vote on a $129 million bond in November to allow the school district to build two high schools and make upgrades and renovations to several older buildings. The district's high schools will also switch to a ninth- to 12th-grade configuration in connection with the new buildings.

If approved, the bond will add a $165 annual tax to the average home, which is valued at $197,000, Cache County School District Superintendent Steven Norton said.

The district previously considered a plan to build a single new high school, but because of the natural north and south division caused by neighboring Logan School District, some parents expressed concerns about busing their children to the opposite end of the valley.

"The response was very positive to the two high school model," Norton said. "We think the support is there, and we’re looking forward to a good positive response on Election Day."

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