In an effort to encourage good government at the local level, the Utah Legislature is looking for ways to foster public participation at budget time.

Some would argue that entities should raise property taxes incrementally each year to avoid spikes in property taxes, like what happened in Davis County.

In 2007, Davis County residents were hit with property-tax increases by Davis County, the Davis School District, Davis Mosquito Abatement District and Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

In addition, property values skyrocketed by double digits, which shifted the tax burden to homes that hadn't been appraised in about a decade.

The Legislature and counties have been tackling ways to keep values from spiking again, but they also want residents to be more involved.

Since 2007, most officials have come to see what happened in Davis County as a fluke and continue to have confidence in Utah's truth-in-taxation system.

During Thursday's meeting of the Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee, which received funding for five extra meetings during the Legislature's Interim, legislators and the public pitched ideas for getting the people and the government together.

Suggestions included making budgets more transparent, providing more information about sales taxes to residents, making government finances more easily available and requiring a vote of the people if property taxes will be increased above a certain rate.

Bruce Johnson, a commissioner on the Utah State Tax Commission, told the committee that an annual truth-in-taxation hearing for every public entity could certainly drive more comment at budget time.

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said 400 to 500 tax hearings could camouflage the important hearings for people to attend.

"The real value in truth-in-taxation hearings and in the (annual valuation) notice is in helping people to understand where there is something to be worried about," Stephenson said.

Ron Mortensen, one of the founders of the Citizens Coalition for Fair Taxes, said information should be made available to residents in an easily digestible format so they can be informed about budgets before going to public hearings.

Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said Alaska allows its residents to download editable spreadsheets of the state budget so they can see how changes to revenues affect the budget's bottom line.

That could be easily implemented by Utah taxing entities, many of whom have Web sites, Van Tassell said.

One problem, Mortensen says, is that when taxing entities want to raise taxes, residents are sometimes faced with various public hearings — known as truth-in-taxation hearings — that must be held in different nights.

If multiple taxing entities in one region want to raise taxes, truth-in-taxation hearings should combine all of those entities into one hearing to let residents see the broad picture, he said.

And if taxes are to be increased above a rate, such as the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, people should have to vote for it with a double majority, Mortensen said.

That means a majority of voters have to turn out for the election, and a majority of them have to vote to pass the tax increase for it to take effect.

The interim committee meets again June 18.


E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com