They needed money, or so their five-year outlook said. So Salt Lake County officials did the only thing they ever seem to do under those circumstances - they tried to scare people.

Last month, the county outlined its terms to the roughly 250,000 people in unincorporated areas. Submit to a $12 million tax increase, at a cost of about $104 per year to the average homeowner, or see a significant cut in the types of services you've come to count on.Specifically, the county said it would have to fire 60 sheriff's deputies, cut the Fire Department's replacement budget in half and eliminate the animal spay and neuter program. Oh yes, and about 300 crossing guards might be canned, as well.

My guess is someone thought the mental image of little children fending their way through morning rush-hour traffic would be enough to make even the most hardened tax protester willingly pay more. After all, what's a crisp Ben Franklin compared to the life of a child?

In this age of outrage over IRS abuses and bullying tactics, shouldn't taxpayers be just as upset about this assault on their collective conscience? Why do governments never approach these situations by saying, "If you don't accept a tax increase, we'll have to reduce our bloated staffs and take a cut in pay"?

The answer may have as much to do with human nature as anything else (how many of you approach your bosses with similar scenarios at budget time?), but the fact is the day of reckoning is coming closer and closer for the unincorporated areas. The county's warning that it may raise taxes at the end of the year is only the beginning.

The time has come for the type of leadership that will push all these areas into cities. Otherwise, the county will strain harder and harder to act as a city to far-flung unincorporated neighborhoods, like a boatman trying to keep one foot on the dock and the other in a boat drifting without a tether. Sooner or later, everything's going to be under water.

Consider this: Between 1994 and 1998, the number of households served in the unincorporated county decreased by 17 percent, from 99,018 to 81,693. Some of those people formed the city of Taylorsville; others were annexed into Midvale. That trend promises to get only worse as the cost benefits of remaining unincorporated dwindle.

But that obviously isn't the whole story. During the same four-year time period, the county's municipal services budget (which pays for police, fire and other unincorporated services) grew by a whopping 53 percent, from $54 million to $83 million.

County leaders say they had to beef up areas that were woefully underfunded. They also say the county is in a bind because it has to pay upfront to build sidewalks and roads for new developments, only to have those areas eventually become absorbed by cities.

The public simply has to take their word for it. Most people don't have time to examine the budget point by point or to review the impact of policy decisions. But they also don't have to sit still when county leaders begin threatening massive cuts to vital services, especially when they defy common sense.

To his credit, Commissioner Randy Horiuchi is honest when he confronts the situation. Most likely the county will have to cut services and go for a smaller tax increase, he said.

But, really, why should unincorporated residents have to keep scrambling for pieces of a smaller, more expensive pie?

Let's examine some solutions. The ultimate one would be to consolidate the entire county into one government, avoiding all the expensive duplications that come from having several police and fire departments. But that isn't likely to happen for reasons ranging from politics to civic pride. The next best solution is for everyone to join a city. That's where leadership comes in.

Left on its own, the county's unincorporated areas will fall prey to municipal Darwinism. The fittest areas - those with some commercial businesses nearby, will find their way into cities. The rest - Olympus Cove and Kearns to name two - will be left like orphaned stepchildren.

Few people realize it, but the cities in the county already have mapped out their claims to territory in the unincorporated areas. All that remains is for a leader, preferably a county commissioner, to broker a deal that persuades the cities to put the plan into action.

It's no use fighting the inevitable, unless those of you in unincorporated areas want to keep hearing about the dire need for cuts to your services year after year - claims made by people who weren't elected to represent the interests of your neighborhood. Not that I want to scare you or anything.