by Howard Stephenson

The number “138” means something to citizens in one of Utah’s largest counties.

When local taxing entities propose property tax hikes, they usually get a lot of public attention and negative feedback. When the proposals are double-digit hikes, citizens tend to get really upset. When the increases are outrageous – more than 15% or so – citizens have been known to take matters into their own hands and change the leadership of their communities.

West Valley City and Murray City elected officials ought to take a lesson from Davis County Commissioners who were thrown out of office for proposing a 138% property tax hike three years ago.

This year West Valley City is proposing to increase the city’s portion of the property tax bill by a whopping 50% for the 2006 property tax year. Murray City Mayor Dan Snarr is asking for a 40% jump in the property tax rate. These are not temporary tax increases. The new money is targeted to be spent for important needs: fire protection and roads in the case of Murray and remedying $7 million in deficits in the case of West Valley. City officials in both cities claim they have no other choice than to raise taxes. That’s what Davis County Commissioners said three years ago.

Davis County also intended to spend their 138% money on important needs such as the county jail and fleet replacements.

Davis County Commissioners were wrong then, and the mayors and city councilors of Murray and West Valley are wrong now.

Not Done in a Corner

Fortunately, in Utah we have TNT, the much maligned Truth-in-Taxation law which requires all proposed property tax hikes to be published in quarter-page newspaper ads with ½ inch black borders. The ad is shaped like a tombstone but elected officials call them tombstone ads because those in office when they are published often are sent to their political graves.

Also required under TNT is a mailed notice to every property owner giving the exact impact of the proposed increase and the date, time, and location of the public hearing. Then comes the much maligned public hearing wherein citizens get to sound off.

Every year at the legislature local taxing entities attempt to repeal or water-down the TNT law. Every year the Utah Taxpayers Association fights and defeats the proposed repeal.

You’d think the TNT law limited the ability of local officials to raise property taxes. It doesn’t. There are no property tax caps or percentage limits contained in the TNT law. Elected officials can raise their taxes all they want under TNT. All TNT requires is full disclosure and a public hearing! It constantly amazes me that transparency in government can be such a hard thing for elected officials to deal with.

Davis County Taxpayers Cleaned House

Despite the fact that the Davis County Commission dropped their 138% increase to 24% (I guess the “needs” were not as great as originally proposed), the citizens of the county threw them out on their ears. Two years ago Commissioner Michael Cragun was defeated in the Republican County Convention, garnering less than 1/3 of the delegate vote. This year the remaining two commissioners were to stand for re-election.
Carol Page wisely decided not to run. Just last month Commissioner Dannie McConkie was defeated in convention despite strong endorsements from highly respected state elected officials. He received less than 1/3 of the delegate vote after relatively unknown challenger Bret Milburn gave a speech to a cheering crowd promising that he would not raise taxes by 138% and he would not vote to double his own salary.

A local citizens’ group called Citizens for Tax Fairness, headed by Ronald Mortensen, was instrumental in keeping this issue alive during the last three years. They are now turning their attention to elimination of government waste and to areas where local governments are using tax dollars to compete with the private sector in Davis County.

Time for Partisan Municipal Elections?

West Valley and Murray elected officials may think that since their elections are not partisan and therefore do not have the screening process provided though the party convention, they don’t have to worry about being thrown from office for raising taxes. Perhaps this is reason enough to make municipal elections and school board elections partisan.
However, even without this change, there are recent examples where mismanagement and tax increases in municipal government have led to housecleaning by the electorate.