Politicians often forget there is no such thing as a municipal taxpayer or a state taxpayer or a federal taxpayer. There is, in fact, only one taxpayer, and that's you. You get to pay them all, with little regard for the fact that governments set budgets independently of each other.
When the nation's economy slows, that can mean you pay more to interact with government in many different ways, even as you struggle to afford groceries, gas and health insurance costs that have become much more expensive.
This is the side of the equation that is easy to understand. It's the side that has quick access to short tempers and that fills city halls with angry residents demanding to cut the fat out of government.
The other side is a little harder to grasp. Governments incur costs, just as do private businesses and households. Every time a fire engine rolls, it uses gas. If it costs you more to fill up, it costs your city more, too, for every fire and police vehicle, every car an inspector drives and every truck an animal control officer needs. City employees need health care. Rising insurance hits local governments, too. And, of course, a slowing economy means fewer retail sales, which means less property tax revenue.
Cities all over Utah are struggling with these realities. Midvale is considering a property tax increase to make up for lagging sales tax revenue and to keep up with services needed due to growth. West Jordan is considering a small property tax increase as well as various cuts. The most prominent Utah city, Salt Lake City, is struggling to close a $23 million gap between department requests and revenue.
Generally, however, the lagging economy's impact on Utah is, so far, slight. Los Angeles is struggling with a $406 million deficit. Washington D.C. is trying to close a $96 million gap. Other parts of the country are doing just as poorly.
In each case, cities have to be careful not to raise taxes to a level at which businesses will go elsewhere and growth will cease. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has proposed raising the fines charged for minor parking fees and building permits. He also wants to raise the price of a business license, even at the risk of driving new businesses elsewhere.
But Utah cities are in a difficult spot, and mostly not of their own making. That brings us to yet another side to this problem. Federal and state governments often push their problems to lower government levels, hoping to escape blame. As Becker has noted, city property owners will be paying more this year because the Jordan School District was allowed to split and because state lawmakers decided to extend huge incentives to Delta Air Lines.
You may be the one paying for all this, but trying to find the right person to blame isn't easy.