SALT LAKE CITY — Under a new ordinance the Salt Lake County Council passed on Tuesday, the once-failed $58 million sales tax hike that voters rejected in 2015 will come back from the dead if enough city leaders signal support.
And at least one city — Millcreek — has already passed a resolution of support, while the county's largest city — Salt Lake City — will likely follow suit.
Under SB136, the massive transportation bill the Utah Legislature passed this year, counties where the Proposition 1 sales tax hike failed can resurrect the tax hike through either approval of the county's legislative body or by placing it back on the ballot — but Salt Lake County opted to take a different course.
The new ordinance, passed by the County Council with one dissenting vote, transferred that power to cities. Under the new ordinance, the 0.25 sales tax increase — which would raise taxes by roughly one penny for every $4 spent — would automatically take effect if cities, towns and metro townships representing 67 percent of Salt Lake County's population adopt resolutions supporting the tax hike.
The ordinance has a deadline for cities to signal support by June 22, in order to allow county leaders to notify the Utah State Tax Commission by July to start collecting the revenue in October.
"We always say that the government closest to the people represents them and speaks for them the best," said Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen, a Republican, who sponsored the ordinance. "Well, we're giving that opportunity to the municipalities, the cities and towns, that they get to decide whether or not they want to have this or not."
But Councilman Richard Snelgrove, also a Republican, cast the lone dissenting vote against the ordinance, saying he was "uncomfortable" and "uneasy" with the process, claiming it was a strategy to diffuse "accountability" for the tax hike.
"This was a method, a scheme put in place out of fear," Snelgrove said, saying county leaders were afraid of the tax hike either failing in a vote from the council or failing again on another ballot.
"This other method had to be put in place to do an end run in order to get this tax implemented (with) little if any accountability," Snelgrove said. "So this method was created to hide accountability so no one can take responsibility for raising taxes, and everyone has plausible deniability."
Salt Lake County voters in 2015 shot down the Proposition 1 sales tax hike, 51 percent to 49 percent. Its downfall was largely attributed to distrust of the Utah Transit Authority and its scandal-tainted past. This year, lawmakers hoped to fix its public image through SB136, which restructured its management and rebranded it as the Transit District of Utah.
Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, disagreed with Snelgrove.
"I think that everyone is showing accountability," she said, adding elected officials from the state, the county have played a role, and now so will cities.
Wilson added the investment in roads and transit is necessary to address a growing need.
"Really what choice do we have?" she said. "We're in a position in this community that we have to invest if we want to absorb growth and maintain the quality of life that we have."
Councilman Jim Bradley, a Democrat, also disagreed with Snelgrove.
"I think it wasn't that we were being duped by the Legislature, but we were offered a carrot that was irresistible to take," Bradley said. "So (state leaders) were very clever, maybe, rather than devious — I don't know. Nevertheless, the outcome's the same, and that is we have this money available to the county ... to meet the end goal, and that is to provide transit and safe highways."
Even before the County Council voted to approve the ordinance, Millcreek became the first city to pass a resolution supporting the tax increase. Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini hand-delivered the resolution, passed Monday night, to the County Council during its meeting Tuesday.
"This (tax increase) would greatly aid the residents of my city in funding road repairs," Silvestrini said, estimating the tax hike would generate at least $1 million for Millcreek streets. "We're pleased to tell you we unanimously supported it last night."
And Salt Lake City may be next — all while city leaders are also weighing whether to implement the city's own sales tax hike to pay for road projects and other priorities.
Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said in an interview Tuesday that Salt Lake City Council members had already discussed the possibility of passing a resolution urging Salt Lake County to implement the tax, knowing that the revenue city leaders have been eying from their own sales tax hike and bond extension still wouldn't be enough to fund every single road project the city needs.
"Assuming that the (city's) sales tax passes in its entirety and so does the bond, we would still welcome transportation dollars to help us fill that actual need in our streets," Mendenhall said. "Salt Lake City knows with complete clarity the condition of every one of our roadways, and we know, therefore, what the actual cost would be to adequately address their decaying condition."7 comments on this story
Mendenhall said she expects Salt Lake City leaders will pass a resolution supporting the county tax hike, noting that while Proposition 1 failed in Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City voters supported it 62 percent to 38 percent, according to 2015 election results.
Salt Lake City, with a population of about 193,000, represents about 17 percent of Salt Lake County's population of more than 1.1 million. West Valley City is the county's second-largest city with a population of about 136,000, and West Jordan comes in third with a population of nearly 114,000.