Although "truth-in-taxation" laws are good for the public, they're bad for cities because they make a healthy economy look like a tax increase, the head of the Utah League of Cities and Towns said.
League director Ken Bullock said he wants the 1991 State Legislature to change the law so cities only have to advertise tax increases if they plan to raise tax rates. This will be the top legislative priority for cities in 1991.Right now, county auditors look at the amount of money cities are expected to receive from taxes and - in order to make sure the amount collected is no greater than the year before - they adjust the city's tax rate.
Often, cities that are growing receive more taxes because more taxpayers moved in or because the value of homes appreciated.
For cities going through good times, that means their tax rates automatically are lowered and they have to advertise that they are raising taxes in order to bring the rate back up to where it was the previous year, even though residents may be paying the same.
For cities suffering tough times, the rates automatically are raised.
"It's called truth-in-taxation," said Ken Miller, mayor of booming West Jordan. "All of us support the spirit of the law, but the way the law is written doesn't allow us to tell our citizens the truth."
Miller wants to change the law so that cities will have to advertise proposed tax increases only when they raise their rates. Otherwise, he said, cities such as West Jordan won't receive the money they need each year to provide the services their growing populations demand.
"Two years ago, when this law first came out, we had a true tax hike," Miller said. "Our council got so beat up over that issue by the public that the next year they said `We're not going to be responsible for another tax increase.' They chose to accept the rate and we lost $69,000 in revenue because of that."
The truth-in-taxation issue heads a modest list of things cities want to accomplish during the legislative session.
When it comes to Salt Lake County, however, the renovation of the Salt Palace will take center stage on Capitol Hill.
Newly elected County Commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley want lawmakers to provide enough money for the first phase of construction on the facility, which includes expanded convention space and a large ballroom.
They also want to secure money for the annual operation of the facility, which is estimated to cost $4 million. The plan includes tax increases for hotels and restaurants.
Commissioners want to leave the arena intact for the moment, deciding what to do with it in the future.
County lobbyists hope their cause will be boosted this year by Horiuchi, who was a successful lobbyist for years before running for office, and by Horiuchi's administrative assistant, Blaze Wharton, a Democratic state representative from Salt Lake City.
Cities and counties have other legislative goals this year. The cities want to:
- Allow business owners in the downtown areas of Utah's cities to form improvement districts to promote economic development. The districts would have the power to tax downtown businesses and promote special events and festivals.
- Change the rules for the way cities have to pay unemployment compensation for seasonal workers. Cities argue that employees hired as temporary or seasonal workers know their jobs will end. By having to pay unemployment costs, cities eventually may have to hire fewer youths and students.
Counties want to:
- Allow counties to put school-zone signs on state-owned roads. Officials argue that county governments are closer to the people and better able to respond quickly when residents demand signs.
- Obtain more state money for the Hansen Planetarium's school programs. Students are bused in from throughout the state each year to attend educational programs. Salt Lake County currently pays a large share of this, even though the students come from all parts of the state.
- Obtain permission to levy taxes on the utility bills of county residents. Known as franchise taxes, this practice is used widely by cities but is not allowed for counties. Counties argue they need more ways of obtaining money without constantly relying on unpopular property taxes.
- Obtain more money from the state to pay for state prisoners being housed in county jails. Counties argue it's only fair for the state to pay for housing the people it arrested.
- Obtain money to begin studying whether the state should abandon the county-attorney system and return to a district-attorney system.
- Change the rules on the local-option school board tax approved last year. Under current rules, counties would have to mail tax notices before any local votes on the school tax. Counties then would have to return money if the voters rejected the tax. The proposed change would make any school taxes effective one year after voters approve them.