Local government leaders, already battle-weary from grappling with their 1988-89 budgets, may face an even tougher fight if two tax-slashing initiatives get on the November ballot.
They won't know until after the new budget year begins on July 1 whether enough signatures were collected to put the initiatives before voters for a final decision.But they are already readying their strongest weapon against the initiatives. Their arsenal consists of the long list of services that would be cut if the initiatives are approved.
Among the areas targeted for cuts if the initiatives pass are fire and police protection. In Salt Lake City, for example, five fire stations would close, a prospect expected to anger residents now served by the stations.
Other possible cuts are not as likely to raise the immediate ire of taxpayers. Eventually, though, they would notice such changes as the deterioration of roads caused by reductions in the state gasoline tax.
A number of organizations that represent communities along the Wasatch Front are trying to compile information on the potential impact of the tax initiatives on local budgets.
The Utah League of Cities and Towns plans to help local governments package this information for voters - and sell them on it. The first lesson is for local government officials to restrain their natural impulse to defend their spending.
"There's a tendency to be defensive, but I don't think that's going to help our cause," said Jan Furner, the league's executive director. "We should provide information."
What voters need to hear is how effective local governments already are, Furner said, adding that the tens of thousands of Utahns who signed the initiatives apparently believe there is waste in government.
"That perception may be inaccurate, but that's certainly the message," he said.
If voters approve the People's Tax and Spending Limitation Amendment, they would be telling local governments to limit property taxes to 0.75 percent of the fair market value for residential property and 1 percent of the fair market value for commercial property.
No date is specified in the initiative for the property tax caps to take effect, so if it is approved, the caps would likely become law five days after the election results are certified by the governor.
Depending on how quickly the governor certifies the results, this portion of the initiative could give government officials their first taste of budget limitation, causing immediate reductions in state, county and local budgets.
Voters would also be ordering local governments to limit spending according to a complicated formula based on per capita income and local growth. This portion of the limitation initiative would not become effective until a new budget year begins after Dec. 31, 1988.
A second initiative, the People's Tax Reduction Act, would roll back the state income, sales, gasoline and cigarette tax increases passed by the 1987 Legislature. The rollback would begin Dec. 31, 1989.
Local governments share about one-fourth of the 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax passed by the 1987 Legislature. That increase, which amounted to $40 million for both the state and local governments, is used for road repair and maintenance.
At least a portion of these reductions would come out of budgets that local officials already consider lean. Most communities are making do with the same or even less revenue than in the current budget year, with only West Jordan proposing any significant tax increase.
Salt Lake County
The Utah city that would be hardest-hit by the initiatives also appears to be the best-armed in the campaign to convince voters that they would lose more than they would gain by voting for the tax-slashing measures.
According to a detailed letter from Mayor Palmer DePaulis, about $13 million would be sliced from Salt Lake City's $80 million general fund budget. Most of the cuts would likely come from the police, fire and public works departments, which account for about 75 percent of the city's total budget.
To trim $13 million, the city would have to close five fire stations and eliminate two paramedic units, which would probably cause substantial hikes in fire insurance premiums.
The police department would have to do without some 53 employees, and so would eliminate a number of programs, such as school crossing guards, officers on duty for special events, the traffic division and the crime lab.
Two out of every three street lights in the city would be dark, and the popular annual neighborhood cleanup program would be eliminated.
Maintenance of city parks would be nearly stopped, as would zoning enforcement and housing inspections. Proportional cuts and layoffs would occur in the mayor's office, in the city's finance department and attorney's office.
West Jordan City Council members and city staff have questioned whether a proposed 85 percent property tax increase will prompt residents to vote for the tax initiatives.
The proposed city budget also would impose a 6 percent utility franchise tax. These increases would be mitigated by the elimination of the city's retail license fee and the elimination of a monthly storm sewer fee.
Not raising taxes because of the fear of rollbacks or limitations would throw the city into immediate financial turmoil because of sharp declines in sales tax revenues, however.
Sandy City officials recently got a surprise as they were attempting to figure out where they would make the reductions mandated by the tax initiatives if the measures are approved by voters.
City Finance Director Art Hunter said he was notified recently by the state Tax Commission that the city would lose an additional $200,000 in property tax revenue over the previous estimate of $450,000.
That would bring the total amount of revenue that would be lost under the tax limitation and rollback to about $700,000, up from an estimated $500,000 including the loss of gasoline tax money.
The difference, which Hunter said tax officials attributed to calculating the loss using more current property tax rates, has shocked Sandy officials, who have yet to determine just where they would make cuts in their $22.1 million overall budget if the initiatives pass.
In West Valley City, city officials estimate the success of the tax initiatives would take $420,000 out of next year's $13.8 million operating budget. Most of that money, $305,000, is gasoline tax revenue earmarked for road repairs.
The loss of the highway funds would trim West Valley City's highway maintenance budget by one-fourth. City officials say the equivalent of 4 1/4 jobs would have to be eliminated to make up the remaining $115,000.
Murray City, which has one of the strongest tax bases in the state, would face about a $200,000 shortfall in property tax revenue, city officials said, plus a reduction of $95,000 in the gasoline tax. That would also result in major cutbacks in road repairs and construction.
Smaller communities along the Wasatch Front are also fearful of the impact the initiatives could have on already limited finances. Bluffdale, for example, has a proposed budget of $231,000 that relies heavily on property and sales taxes.
Riverton, which city leaders tout as the municipality with the lowest property taxes in the valley, fears a successful tax cut drive could gut services across the board, officials said.
Public safety, which Riverton contracts from the Salt Lake County sheriff's office and the community's new volunteer fire station, could be targets, City Councilwoman Darla Serassio said. So might road and sidewalk projects Riverton citizens have been clamoring for.
Some cities, like Draper, are not as dependent on property taxes to fill their coffers. Draper City Administrator Andy Hatton-Ward said the city would lose only about one-fourth of the road repair funds allocated from the state's gasoline tax.
The decrease from $100,000 to $75,000 in the road repair funds is the only major impact on the city's proposed $1.2 million operating budget, Hatton-Ward said.
And in Midvale, sales tax is the largest revenue source. City officials would use money accumulated as surplus over the last few years to offset the effect of tax limitation.
Community leaders in Davis County, too, are considering the effects of tax limitation.
At the city's budget hearing May 17, Centerville Mayor Dean Argyle said a reduced funding level for the city would directly affect the level of police, fire and other services the city offers.
He said the city's recreation, weed control and annual spring cleanup programs are also vulnerable.
And, according to the mayor, culinary water projects the city is planning might have to be delayed, resulting in either water shortages in the city's growing north end or a possible building moratorium.
Centerville is also faced with its last opportunities to acquire open space in large quantities for parks and recreation centers, the mayor said. Those opportunities may not be available in as little as a year or two.
Layton finance director Steven Ashby said the city hasn't set up any specific responses to possible tax limitations or rollbacks partly because information on how deeply Layton would be affected is either not available or contradictory.
One set of figures from the state budget office and the League of Cities and Towns showed Layton would not be affected by the property tax limitation, Ashby said, "but I can hardly believe we wouldn't be affected by it, somehow."
The tax rollback would take $105,000 out of the $450,000 the city gets from the state for road maintenance, Ashby said, cutting 15 percent of the Layton street budget.
That would hurt, he said, although there has been no formal discussion by the city council or city administrators on how a cut would be handled. Layton could simply cut its street budget back by that amount, Ashby said, or transfer funds from other program cutbacks in other departments to make up the difference.