Salt Lake County commissioners meeting this week to hammer out a 1989 budget would dearly love to give property owners a tax cut in the form of a reduction in the county's overall tax rate.
But to lower property taxes, commissioners would have to cut spending somewhere and that means possible reductions in services and programs.And while making spending cuts is never easy, it may be harder than ever next year when the county wants to start building a new jail facility for misdemeanor offenders estimated to cost at least $8 million.
A number of factors - the proposed new jail, the sharply rising cost of health insurance, a potential revenue shortfall in the fund that provides municipal services to the unincorporated county and inflation - will make it very tough for commissioners to cut the tax rate, or even to hold it at the 1988 level.
Next year's tax rates will not actually be set until June. But the county must adopt its 1989 calendar-year budget by Dec. 15, and that requires commissioners to plan next year's tax rate now based on revenue projections for 1989.
And it's possible, although perhaps unlikely for political reasons, that lower-than-expected revenues or other unforeseen budget problems could cause commissioners to change their intentions between Jan. 1 and June on the issue of cutting or holding steady on taxes.
The tax cut discussions so far have been general and philosophical, and no figures have been mentioned suggesting how large, or small, any tax reduction might be. Although any decision on the commission's intentions for next year's tax rate isn't likely until later this week, commission chairman Bart Barker said he is inclined to favor a tax cut, even if it is necessarily a small one.
But while a tax cut may be in keeping with current public sentiment, commissioners are quick to point out that cutting the county's tax rate - and thus its revenues - can't be done without some compensating cuts in spending for programs and services.
And commissioners are unlikely to approve a tax cut if they think it will hurt services, unless county residents clearly favor the tradeoff of reduced services for lower taxes.
"The question is, do we go to a lower tax rate and make cuts in services and in specific programs?" Barker asked. "Is it time to re-evaluate the role of county government? Do we put limits on how big it's allowed to grow, or is it already too big?"
But that's not the only question.
Commissioners are also concerned that if they cut taxes, they could be setting county government up for a tax-reduction "double hit." Gov. Norm Bangerter and legislative leaders have already told counties to expect some kind of property tax limits to come out of the next legislative session.
Although no one yet knows what form those state limits may take, commissioners are concerned that the county might cut taxes only to have the Legislature then cap local property taxes, leaving the county tax rate stuck at the reduced level.
One complaint counties have had with a Bangerter proposal to freeze property taxes at current levels is that local governments would be hindered from raising taxes to provided needed improvements to accommodate local business growth that could provide new jobs.
And the problem would be greater if Salt Lake County has already reduced its tax rate before a cap is imposed, commissioners said.