Kristin Murphy, File, Deseret News
Unified Police Officer Jim McNeice blocks the entrance to Neff's Canyon where a man was reported to be with a gun in Millcreek on Feb. 20. At a Truth in Taxation hearing Thursday, residents living and working in unincorporated county and several cities voiced concerns over new taxes used to fund the Unified Police Department.
Once you start using the budget in January, what can you do in August but vote this way? We've already spent this money. —Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth

SALT LAKE CITY — Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth didn't mince words or make excuses.

"If you own a business in Riverton, you're paying more for law enforcement this year than last," Applegarth said.

It was an honest if unpopular statement Thursday night during an often testy Truth in Taxation hearing at the Unified Police Department.

Applegarth and other members of the Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Service Area board spent about three hours attempting to explain to the crowd of about 100 the county's property tax assessment for public safety.

Gary White, who owns commercial property in Riverton, says he'll be paying about $1,000 more this year for law enforcement than a year ago.

"That's not (Salt Lake County's) fault," Applegarth said. "That's the way we had to do it in Riverton."

County officials explained the law enforcement tax as a shift rather than an increase. Because it replaces the even more unpopular police fee, the assessment shows as a 100 percent increase on property owners' tax bills.

In Riverton, city leaders offset the tax shift for residents by lowering the monthly sanitation fee from $12.50 to $1 and did away with the city's street lighting fee.

Between the property tax and city fees charged by Riverton, residents will pay about $60 less for law enforcement than they did a year ago, based on a home valued at $230,00.

Businesses, however, pay their own sanitation costs so they don't get that $132 per year savings. Businesses also pay 100 percent of their property valuation compared with 55 percent for residential property owners under state law.

County officials say a majority of residents throughout the service area will pay less for law enforcement than a year ago. But many of those who spoke during the hearing cited increases in their property tax bills because of the law enforcement levy.

"People whose property taxes have gone down probably aren't here," noted Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley, chairman of the service area board.

Despite the parade of upset property owners, the board unanimously adopted the tax rate, saying they had no other choice because the county budget anticipating the fee has been in place since January.

"Once you start using the budget in January, what can you do in August but vote this way?" Applegarth said. "We've already spent this money."

Board members agreed with residents who criticized the timing of the Truth in Taxation hearing.

"It's a terrible procedure," Applegarth said. "But it's a (state) law we have to function under."

Though public hearings were held on the county budget, many of those who spoke Thursday said they weren't aware of the tax shift until recently. And several were surprised to find out that the hearing was little more than a formality.

Others who spoke Thursday were still upset about the origins of the police fee, imposed by the county in 2010 to cover a budget gap created by the loss of sales tax revenue during the economic downturn.

The state Legislature stepped in and passed a bill that eliminated the ability for the service area to levy the police fee after Dec. 31, 2012.

Leslie Riddle, of East Millcreek, called the original fee unfair, deceiving and the reason for the new tax.

"I'm hoping you'll change your minds (about the tax)," Riddle said. "This is not good for us. It's not good for the residents."