SALT LAKE CITY — An army of Wasatch Front mayors banded together Tuesday, urging county leaders to allow voters to consider a sales tax increase that would help pay for local transportation needs.
"We support (the tax) because it will help us meet critical, unfunded transportation needs in our communities," Kaysville Mayor Steve Hiatt told the Davis County Commission. "We stand together today to urge you as a commission to empower voters this November and let them choose whether to invest in transportation in their local communities."
Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber county commissions all listened to the mayors’ support for the 0.25 percent increase as they cited growing populations, crumbling roads and insufficient funds.
So far, 86 cities and towns across the state have passed or are considering resolutions expressing support for a vote on county-wide tax increases, said Cameron Diehl of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
All of Salt Lake County's 16 cities have expressed support for the ballot item. In Davis County, 12 of 15 cities have passed similar resolutions, while 13 of Utah County's 22 cities and 13 of Weber County's 15 cities have done the same.
The local option to place the tax on the ballot is allowed by a new law the Utah Legislature passed this year: HB362. That same law will also raise Utah’s fuel tax by 5 cents per gallon starting Jan. 1.
Opponents to the possible tax increase say it would ask too much of taxpayers, especially since they have already seen two tax hikes this year: the gas tax and a $75 million property tax increase.
"Enough is enough for Utah families," said Evelyn Everton, director of Americans for Prosperity of Utah. "Utah families are already struggling to adjust their budgets to those two tax increases, and this would cause them to struggle even further."
Billy Hesterman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayer's Association, said taxpayers are "being hit left and right" this year.
"It's come to a point where taxpayers deserve a chance to catch their breath," he said. "Putting this on the ballot this year would just be one more stress for families that are already looking for ways to make ends meet."
If the local tax is implemented statewide, it would generate more than $147 million by 2017 for transportation projects, according to HB362. It would cost taxpayers a penny for every $4 spent.
Farmington Mayor Jim Talbot cited a Utah League of Cities and Towns study showing a 63 percent gap between local transportation needs and current allocation of road funds, which have caused statewide deterioration of local roads.
"The sooner we can ask our voters to invest in the infrastructure our residents expect and need, the better," Hiatt said. "With the knowledge that we can invest $1 in maintenance today to save $15 to $25 dollars in reconstruction later, it would seem fiscally irresponsible to not have this conversation to provide communities, transit and government the ability to fund the dollar and save a significant amount later."
Of the ¼-cent increase, 40 percent would go to the Utah Transit Authority, 40 percent would be reserved for cities, and 20 percent would go to counties for transportation projects, including local roads, trails and bike access.
Hesterman said he agrees voters should ultimately decide whether to support or reject a tax increase, but that's why county leaders should wait until next year to place it on the ballot.
"Let's do it during a year when voter turnout will be a lot higher," Hesterman said, explaining this year will host municipal elections instead of next year's presidential election. "It's an odd year when people aren't paying as much attention to the ballot as they maybe should."
Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said the success rate for ballot initiatives is the same for general and municipal elections, resting at 70 percent.
"The Legislature has opened the door, which is something they rarely do," Cullimore said. "We need to show no hesitancy to walk through that door. Any hesitancy could be misinterpreted by the Legislature and lead to unwanted changes in the next legislative session."
Before Utah County leaders, Eagle Mountain resident Wendi Baggaley, who ran for Utah County Republican Party chairwoman, said while she supports putting the tax increase on the ballot, she's concerned about the amount of funds that would go to UTA rather than to local roads. Everton echoed those worries.
"In the past, (UTA) hasn't been great stewards of taxpayer dollars; we've seen massive bonuses and real waste," Everton said. Last year, UTA officials lowered yearly bonuses in order to boost public confidence.
Lincoln Shurtz, Utah Association of Counties governmental affairs director, said the decisions of the Wasatch Front's four major counties will likely have a great influence on what rural counties decide to do.
"They're all watching," Diehl said.
County leaders took no action Tuesday, but Shurtz said they will decide by mid-August whether to ask voters for the increase on the upcoming November ballot. In the meantime, they will continue to gather information from city leaders and residents.
The following cities and towns have passed or are considering resolutions urging their counties to place the quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot:
Salt Lake County: Alta, Bluffdale, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Herriman, Holladay, Midvale, Murray, Riverton, Salt Lake City, Sandy, South Jordan, South Salt Lake, Taylorsville, West Jordan and West Valley City.
Davis County: Bountiful, Centerville, Clearfield, Clinton, Farmington, Fruit Heights, Kaysville, North Salt Lake, South Weber, Sunset, West Bountiful and Woods Cross.
Utah County: Alpine, Cedar Fort, Elk Ridge, Fairfield, Highland, Lehi, Lindon, Orem, Payson, Pleasant Grove, Provo, Salem, Santaquin, Saratoga Springs and Spanish Fork.
Weber County: Farr West, Harrisville, Hooper, Marriott-Slaterville, Ogden, Plain City, Pleasant View, Riverdale, Roy, South Ogden, Uintah, Washington Terrace and West Haven.
Sevier County: Annabella, Central Valley, Glenwood, Redmond, Richfield, Salina, Monroe and Sigurd.
Washington County: Hildale, Hurricane, Ivins, Santa Clara, Toquerville, Washington and Hanksville.
Sanpete County: Ephraim, Fairview, Fountain Green, Gunnison and Mount Pleasant.
Other counties: Castle Valley, Daniel, Hanksville, Henefer, Morgan, Nephi, Oakley, Tremonton and Wendover.