Gov. Norm Bangerter, stubbornly defending his new plan to freeze property taxes, accused Salt Lake County commissioners Friday of favoring higher taxes.
Reacting angrily to commissioners for saying the plan would harm them, Bangerter wrote them saying he is tired of taking the blame every time local governments decide to raise property taxes."Frankly, I do not understand why you would object to my proposal unless you favor increasing property taxes," he wrote. "It is totally inconsistent for office holders, or candidates for office, to say they are against raising taxes and yet object to limits being placed on their ability to increase them."
Salt Lake County's three commissioners were quick to respond to Bangerter's comments. In a letter to the governor, they said Bangerter's plan would have long-term, negative effects on local governments, particularly counties.
"In contrast to its effects on state government, your plan would leave local governments - those closest to the people - without the ability to respond promptly to emergencies or to new service demands," the letter said.
Counties receive most of their funding from property taxes. Not long after Bangerter announced his plan earlier this week, county officials accused him of making them suffer to help him politically in his fight against Democrat Ted Wilson.
"Most governments in Utah have responsibly avoided property tax increases during the past three years, while the state adopted the largest tax increase in its history - an increase that later proved to have been larger than necessary," the letter said. "Ironically, both the tax initiatives and your alternative, `responsible' plan inflict their most serious consequences on those local governments that have shown restraint."
"Local governments did not miscalculate state revenues," Commissioner John Hiskey said. "We didn't bring about the tax-initiative movement."
But Bangerter said the property tax freeze is only one of six points in his plan, which was announced as an alternative to three tax-limiting initiatives on November's ballot. Other points would limit state spending, keep a recently passed income tax cut and restrain state bonding.
"I would hope that as elected officials you would also understand the level of frustration and anger people feel over taxes," Bangerter told commissioners. "You reported abhorrence to the suggestion that there be any limits imposed on government spending and taxing is the kind of attitude that, more than anything, adds fuel to the fires of taxpayer frustration over government spending."
Commissioners retorted that their opposition to his plan does not mean they want to raise property taxes.
"Do you really believe that our legitimate disagreement with your new political strategy means we are unaware of the taxpayer anger state tax increases have caused?" they wrote. "We believe our actions in recent years and our five-year plan make our commitment clear. Our rec-ord is certainly more convincing than promises."
Bangerter said local government will be asked to help draft the bill that would freeze property taxes. The governor plans to propose such a bill if he is re-elected.
But the question of whether to freeze property taxes is not open for discussion.
"My objective to freeze property taxes is not negotiable . . . because I believe it is absolutely essential that those of us in government let the people know that we have received their message and are willing to be responsive to their obvious desire that taxing and spending be limited," Bangerter said.