A phone call from the governor apparently helped kill a Salt Lake County property tax increase this week - and that was an example of politics winning over statesmanship, according to the county's two newly elected commissioners.
After Gov. Norm Bangerter's call Tuesday to County Commissioner Bart Barker, he and fellow Commissioner Tom Shimizu decided to reverse an agreed-upon tax hike that would have cost the average homeowner about $6.11 more per year.But as a result, the commissioners made cuts that will affect mental-health services and the construction of a new jail, among other things. That prompted several mental-health patients and workers to attend a hearing Friday night to lobby the commission to reverse its decision.
Commissioners-elect Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley, both Democrats, said Friday it was "exceptionally ironic" that the governor had a hand in holding the line on taxes. County officials long have complained that the state has pushed many of its responsibilities onto counties without giving them the necessary money.
They also criticized Barker and Shimizu, both Republicans, for following the governor's advice. Horiuchi and Bradley characterized the last-minute cuts as arbitrary and harmful.
"The governor didn't say, `I've looked at this budget item by item and here are some suggestions on where to cut,' " Bradley said. "The budget should be a thoughtful process, and I thought it was quite irresponsible for Barker and Shimizu to come in that last day and say they had gotten advice from the governor that it wouldn't be a good thing to raise taxes as their last act in office.""That's not statesmanship. That's salesmanship," added Horiuchi. "It was political advice, not public-policy advice. We're not trumpeting that we ought to raise taxes. We just want the opportunity to not start out behind the eight ball."
The governor called only Barker. Shimizu and Commissioner Mike Stewart said they did not receive calls.
The two Democrats said they likely will reopen the budget when they take office and give more money to the sheriff and the jail. They will get little argument from Stewart, the lone remaining Republican commissioner. He supported the tax hike, saying county residents probably will suffer a bigger increase next year to make up for having none this year.
Barker declined to comment on criticisms about his call from the governor. "I'm not going to engage in political fights," he said. Barker said the governor's advice only reaffirmed his own feelings. He said Horiuchi and Bradley may have had different opinions if they had attended all the county's budget hearings in recent weeks.
"They want us to raise taxes, for whatever reason, whether to make it easier for them or what. But we have been consistent (in not raising taxes) for five years," Barker said. "It's a healthier budget we're leaving them with than any we gave ourselves in previous years."
Shimizu said the budget is no different than any he has had to work with in previous years. He said his decisions would have been the same had he won the election in November.
However, all three commissioners agreed they probably will add many of the items they cut back into the budget before it becomes official on Dec. 14. They likely will restore much of the money they took from the mental-health agency, either cutting other programs to compensate or dipping into the county's rainy-day funds.