Mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake City Council have prided themselves in recent months on emerging from an arduous 2008-09 budget season without raising taxes.

So why do some residents' property-tax notices show more money going toward the city than in past years? And why is the city holding a Truth-in-Taxation hearing on Tuesday?

Steve Fawcett, Salt Lake City's interim director of management services, attempted to answer those questions and others Thursday night during a free workshop he described as City Finance 101.

"It can be pretty complicated," Fawcett told the handful of residents and city employees. He then proceeded with a 30-minute presentation to make it less so.

The $210 million general-fund budget was balanced and approved by the council on June 18 without a property tax increase — at least not a traditional one.

The council honored Becker's recommendation by not boosting revenue above what was budgeted. However, city officials began the budget process using the previous year's property-tax revenue as its expected revenue for 2008.

That decision requires the city to hold a Truth-in-Taxation hearing, because the revenue generated by the city from property tax was $2.1 million higher than budgeted the previous year, Fawcett explained.

For the city to maintain the $46.6 million in property-tax revenue from 2007, its tax levy needs to exceed the state-certified rate, he said.

City officials describe the rate change as a stabilization of revenue rather than a tax increase.

"It's not a tax increase," said Helen Langan, Becker's spokeswoman, "but the state looks at it as a tax increase. We built the budget based on the revenue we brought in the previous year."

How that affects Salt Lake residents varies from one property owner to another, Fawcett said.

"There's always a difference to property owners because of the way property values are calculated," he said.

Because the city is expecting the same level of property tax revenue in 2008 as in 2007, residents should be paying about the same amount to the city, Fawcett said.

"Theoretically, if someone's goes up, someone else's goes down," he said.

Putting together a budget was made more difficult for Becker due to a slowing economy and rising health-care and fuel costs for the city. The first-year mayor began with a $23 million budget gap — the largest in the city's history — between department requests and city revenues.

The budget got even more tricky for the council midway through the approval process when it was determined that the fuel expense estimates in Becker's budget were outdated and insufficient by about $450,000.

The elimination of a handful of positions — most of them already vacant — and the decision to treat some ongoing expenses as one-time costs allowed the council to offset the rising fuel costs without raising property taxes.

FACT BOX

The Salt Lake City Council will host a Truth-in-Taxation hearing before considering the adoption of a tax levy greater than the state-certified rate. The public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in room 315 of the Salt Lake City-County Building, 451 S. State.


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