When it comes to boutique bond proposals, like Hogle Zoo's proposed $65 million tax increase and the Tracy Aviary's $19 million tax increase, there's no such thing as "no." From their proponents' perspective, "no" really means, "not now." It's time for the Salt Lake County Council to send a clear message and (again) reject both of these boutique property-tax increases.
Last summer, the County Council rejected Hogle Zoo's $65 million bond proposal. The economy was buzzing and politicians were wondering how they could spend all their excess revenue. Nonetheless, the County Council saw that financial impact of the Jordan School District split was unknown but significant. With this pressing issue looming, the council rejected the bond proposal.
Undaunted at the time, the zoo told the council that it would be back again this year, and true to its word, it has brought the same $65 million tax increase to the County Council. This time, economic conditions are worse.
The state's latest revenue report highlights a much slower economy. In FY 2007, the state's actual sales-and-use tax revenues were 2.9 percent above the previous year's. The Tax Commission's most recent projections indicate that FY 2008 sales-and-use tax revenues were 3.9 percent below the previous year. Similarly, actual corporate income-tax revenues in FY 2007 were 2.9 percent above than the previous year, while this fiscal year's projected corporate income-tax revenues are 1.2 percent below the previous year.
These are hardly the only signals of a slowing economy. Home sales have slowed dramatically. Cities across the valley have announced plans to hike property taxes. The costs and unknowns surrounding the split of the Jordan School District are getting bigger, not smaller. And on top of all that, SB48 equalizes a portion of the property tax, so that taxpayers on the west side of the Jordan School District don't see their property taxes triple. Whether intended or not, that means every other school district in the valley will be raising property taxes.
Finally, Utah is staring at a significant tax increase for transportation. The best estimates place the cost of rebuilding I-15 in Utah County at between $3 billion and $5 billion. No observer believes the 2009 Legislature will avoid a tax increase to raise those funds. To pay for the Mountain View Corridor, the mayors and city councils on the west side want higher motor vehicle registration fees or higher gas taxes. And that brief list ignores the valley's pressing need to improve east-west transportation options, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more that simply are not available from current revenue sources.
In evaluating whether to place the Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary bonds before the voters, these are the considerations the County Council must weigh. They have a responsibility to only place those items on the ballot that really are of the highest priority. Children and families love both the zoo and the aviary, but those recreational options pale in comparison with the pressing infrastructure needs Salt Lake County faces.
No doubt the County Council faces tremendous pressure to place these bonds before the voters. "The people deserve the opportunity to make this choice," is a seductive argument. However, simply passing that decision on to the voters is a dereliction of the County Council's duty. Itmust send a firm message that boutique proposals like Hogle Zoo's $65 million tax hike and Tracy Aviary's $19 million tax hike are completely inappropriate, as long as these far weightier matters are looming.
M. Royce Van Tassell is the vice president of The Utah Taxpayers Associaton.