by Howard Stephenson
Property owners in Salt Lake and Weber counties have historically paid some of the highest property tax rates along the Wasatch Front. It now appears many Davis County elected officials want to join the high-tax team.
During the past year, a slew of local governments in Davis County have increased taxes or have announced intentions to increase taxes. Last year, Farmington City implemented a 29% property tax increase; the largest of any city in the state. This year Davis County and Davis School District have adopted increases, and cities in south Davis County will be seeking voter approval on a sales tax increase to fund arts and recreation. And now, Davis County taxpayers can add Layton City officials to the ever-growing list of elected officials in the county who want to raise taxes.
DAVIS COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
Last November more than 2,000 Davis County residents showed up to protest a proposed 138% tax increase in the county’s portion of the 2003 property tax bill. Had it been approved, Davis County’s tax rate would have jumped to the 7th highest in the state and 48% above the state average. If the proposed 2003 budget had been approved, Davis County’s total per capita spending in 2003 would have risen to 50% higher than Utah County’s. Utah County serves as a good benchmark because the two counties are economically and demographically similar. Utah County also has the lowest property tax rate of any county along the Wasatch Front.
As it turned out, the public pressure caused Davis County Commissioners to pare the property tax hike to 24% — an amount that would normally have elicited a public outcry in its own right — while commissioners delayed a decision on constructing and operating a new county jail. If approved, the jail proposal would require implementation of most of rest of the original 138% tax hike proposal. Commissioners have had a whole year to study the jail issue and to place the measure on the November 2003 ballot, but it now appears that they will call a special bond election in February, ensuring a low voter turnout which would enable special interests to sway the results of the election.
DAVIS SCHOOL DISTRICT RAISES TAXES — FOR ATHLETICS!
The Davis School Board last week approved an increase in its recreation property tax levy to fund district athletic programs. Officials claimed the Employers Education Coalition recommended it. The Davis School Board has increased taxes in recent years to increase operating costs and to construct new buildings. The district has come under fire for its lavish administration buildings to house the administrative staff of the district. The recreation property tax increase was opposed by the Utah Taxpayers Association and the Davis County Chamber of Commerce.
LAYTON CITY AND DAVIS COUNTY IN CAHOOTS
At the center of the newest tax increase are the proposed Davis Conference Center and an adjacent hotel that will be privately owned. County officials have been maintaining for months that the Davis Conference Center is a financially viable enterprise that will not impose additional burdens on taxpayers, and they have been claiming that they have a feasibility study to prove it. Now, proponents of the conference center are backtracking and are claiming that additional taxpayer support is needed in the form of a new 1% tax on hotels in Layton City. Additionally, taxpayers will also be responsible for infrastructure improvements. In total, taxpayers will be forking over more than $1 million in new taxes and subsidies to get this project off the ground.
The tax increase and taxpayer funding of infrastructure, however, are not the only concerns associated with the conference center. If the conference center is such a financial no-brainer and is being built to satisfy existing demand, why hasn’t the private sector stepped up to the plate and offered to finance and operate the convention center at its own risk? Private investors are willing to build and operate the adjacent hotel but are insisting that taxpayers assume the costs and the risks of the conference center. Should taxpayer dollars be risked on a conference center in order to ensure the profitability of a privately owned hotel?
The Davis Convention Center is designed to divert business from Park City and Salt Lake City to Layton. If Davis County officials feel that they have to use taxpayer subsidies to stimulate the local economy, they should at least try to compete against other states instead of competing against other Utah cities whose residents pay taxes to the same public education and higher education systems that Davis County taxpayers support.
In addition to the economic and financial aspects of the conference center, there is also a moral aspect. Existing hotels in Layton will be assisting their new competitors by paying the new hotel tax and subsidizing the conference center’s infrastructure which will improve the profitability of the new hotel adjacent to the convention center.
SHOULD GOVERNMENT KEEP OUT OF FREE ENTERPRISE?
Over the years, local governments in Utah have ventured into areas and services traditionally provided by the private sector, such as golf courses and recreation centers. Many of these ventures have been allegedly justified in the name of economic development or by the claim that local governments may actually make a profit, as if profit making were a core responsibility of government. However, the majority of municipal golf courses and recreation centers in Utah lose money and are consequently subsidized by taxpayers. On top of this, government-owned recreation centers, golf courses, and conference centers do not pay taxes and typically drive out taxpaying private entities that provide the same services. These government enterprises are therefore a double whammy for taxpayers: taxpayer subsidies are required to build and operate the money-losing government enterprises and tax revenues are lost when the private sector entities are forced out. Will the Davis Convention Center end up being a financial albatross for taxpayers? Is this a risk that taxpayers should take? The recently proposed tax increase and taxpayer subsidies are certainly not a good indication.
DAVIS OFFICIALS DON’T FEEL TAXPAYERS’ PAIN
These county, school, and city officials in Davis County have been indifferent to the financial pain that families and businesses are experiencing in this recession. Most egregious are the proposed tax increases that will fund activities that are not critical and can be provided by the private sector. The fight against improper tax and fiscal policy is a never ending battle, and Davis County and Layton City taxpayers need to voice their opposition to this proposal.