State lawmakers ought to elevate fee increases to the same status as tax increases.
The reason is simple. Governments should be accountable and transparent, and all public money, whether from taxes or fees, should be treated as a sacred trust.
Whenever a local government raises a fee for a service or decides to increase the amount it tacks onto residents' monthly utility bills, it should be required to hold a public hearing, just as if it were raising property taxes. Even services as diverse as business licenses and garbage collection involve a public trust. They tend to be treated differently because they are considered voluntary fees. If you don't want to pay them, simply don't request the service.
The truth, of course, is that many of them are not voluntary at all. They are necessary to running a household or a business.
This has become an issue in recent years as Utah politicians have done all they can to avoid property-tax increases, which often bring heated protests at public hearings. Instead of raising those taxes, many have opted to increase fees. In some cases, cities that traditionally have provided a service with property taxes have instead shifted that burden to fees, freeing up extra money in the general fund. Some cities, such as Herriman, have shifted a good deal of their tax burden toward fees.
This shift is not necessarily bad. In fact, there is considerable merit to the argument that fees, which must be spent for a specific purpose, provide residents with a better idea than do taxes of exactly where their money is going.
But even if they are more desirable than taxes, fees deserve just as much public scrutiny.
A few months ago, the Utah Taxpayers Association released figures showing that Utahns have the eighth-highest overall burden of taxes and fees in the nation. Take fees out of that equation and Utah ranks 20th overall in its tax burden. Parse it further and the state ranks a respectable 38th in its property-tax burden.
In other words, property taxes aren't the problem. The state ranks 15th in individual income taxes. That's easy to understand, given that all state income taxes, by law, must go toward education. Utah has a lot of children to educate.
But fees, which most people pay without really noticing, have an increasing impact both on the state and local government levels. They deserve the same sort of public scrutiny as property taxes.