Utah's elected county officials have a unified reaction to Gov. Norm Bangerter's proposed property tax freeze plan:
They don't like it.Bangerter and leaders of the Utah Legislature served notice during a session of the Utah Association of Counties annual convention this week that tax limits are on the way.
While the state leaders promised to involve local governments in crafting whatever tax-limitation plan comes out of the next legislative session, county officials were unimpressed.
The counties say Bangerter's freeze, like the tax-limiting initiatives that were overwhelmingly rejected by voters last week, is unnecessary because counties are already holding the line on taxes.
If tax limits are needed, they should be placed on the federal and state governments, county officials say, because, after all, the tax initiative movement began in response to a big increase in state taxes, not local property taxes.
And counties are feeling some sense of double jeopardy. Having just dodged one tax limiting bullet in the initiatives, they now have to face another from the governor's office. And they find that frustrating.
"We've never been close to the limit on our certified tax rate in Utah County," said Utah County commissioner Brent Morris, chairman of the UAC Revenue and Taxation Committee. "A lot of counties are like that. Maybe in Salt Lake County and at the state level they need limits. But most counties feel they've been limiting taxes already."
While property taxes are probably the most detested of all government levies, they are the bread and butter of county and local school district revenues. That's why local government and school officials get upset when anyone, including the governor, starts talking about limiting property taxes.
Many county elected officials think the state has no business limiting property taxes anyway, since local entities - those which depend most on property tax revenues - can respond to local needs much more efficiently and effectively than the state can.
"The problem with the governor's plan is the same one the initiatives had," UAC Executive Director Brent Gardner said. "Uniform tax limits have to hurt someone. If you take a so-called simple limit and place it on a local taxing district, someone bears the hardship. Taxing districts are not uniform. That's the nature of local government."
The governor has pledged his tax limiting plan will have enough flexibility to avoid binding local governments. But county officials are unconvinced, and they point out there are other problems with a freeze.
For instance, who will decide how the limited revenue pie is sliced up among local taxing entities? Will a property tax cap encourage taxing districts to raise their tax rates unnecessarily to avoid being left in the cold later when the tax ceiling has been reached?
Counties wonder if there is really a mandate for property tax limits. The initiatives were defeated almost 2-1. And county officials say the 1986 Truth in Taxation law - which requires public notice and hearings before any tax increase above the certified rate can be approved - have served to hold down tax increases, and thus are already an effective form of tax limitation.
It's clear that some kind of response to Utahns' concerns about taxes will come out of the 1989 Legislature, Gardner said. However, he thinks legislators won't necessarily limit property taxes but may put together a limitation package involving other taxes.
But beyond their stance against property tax limits, the counties have trouble agreeing even among themselves what approach they should take when they begin working with the governor and legislators on a tax limiting measure.
"I think there is clear indication the counties are tentative and cautious, that there is no consensus," Morris said. "No one really knows what to do."