Good riddance S.L. County police fee?

By Jeremiah Stettler
January 28, 2011

Salt Lake County would have to eliminate its police fee and pay back any money collected this year if a bill before the Legislature passes.

Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, has introduced HB226, which would halt the unpopular fee imposed on unincorporated suburbs such as Magna, Millcreek and Kearns.

The measure would bar counties from charging or collecting fees for services such as law enforcement. It also would order refunds for anyone who has paid the fee after Jan. 1.

The bill takes a direct shot at Utah’s most-populous county, which began collecting the fee last year to make up for a multimillion-dollar shortfall in its budget for unincorporated areas.

Homeowners now face an annual payment of $162. Businesses pay more, depending on how much demand their type of enterprise — whether it be a day care, gas station or super center — places on police.

Harper said the county never should have enacted the fee. If government needed more money, he added, officials should have turned to a more traditional tax.

“If Salt Lake County was short on revenue, they should have held a public hearing and gone through the open and prescribed process to raise property tax,” he said. “With the passage of this bill, they will have that opportunity to correct [the] error and address revenue shortfalls correctly.”

Although the county has reduced the fee twice since it was adopted ­— shaving about $1 million from a fee that once generated more than $12 million — it hasn’t eliminated the charge altogether. Instead, officials have pledged to roll back the fee incrementally as sales taxes recover.

Like Harper, County Councilman Michael Jensen said he would love to scrap the fee. But now is not the time.

If HB226 succeeds, Jensen said, the county would face steep budget cuts that could lead to police layoffs or scaled-back services on everything from snowplowing to street repair in the unincorporated county.

“The majority of the council would like to do away with the fee,” Jensen said. “But there are some practical issues with this bill.”

Such as balancing the budget. The county already has adopted its 2011 spending plan and has passed the deadline for raising property taxes. That means officials would have “no other option,” Jensen said, but to drain millions from existing services.

The county has lobbied for an alternative funding source. Last year, it supported Harper’s attempt to replace the police fee with a utility franchise tax. That measure, which would have given counties the same taxing authority as cities, fizzled.

The county may renew its push for a utility franchise tax this year. But Jensen said any proposal probably would include budget cuts as well.

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What HB226 would do

Prohibit counties from charging or collecting fees in certain service areas — such as Salt Lake County’s unincorporated police district.

Force those counties to repay any fees collected this year.