Jeremiah Stettler
January 5, 2010

Erik Nelson has served up Reuben sandwiches and Chinese chicken salad for more than a decade at Emigration Canyon’s nostalgic Ruth’s Diner. Only twice has he had to call the police.
But the cafe owner soon might have to pay an extra $1,392 a year for police protection.

That’s the bitter prospect facing the 170,000 residents and 2,500 businesses within Salt Lake County’s unincorporated burbs. They soon could find a quarterly bill in their mailboxes to support the newly formed Unified Police Department.

“I feel that my property taxes should have covered that,” Nelson said. “Basically, what they are doing is raising my property taxes.”

But the county has fallen on hard financial times. The recession has ripped a multimillion-dollar hole in its fund for city-like services such as police patrols in townships and other parts of the unincorporated county.

So while the cost of policing actually will drop about 6 percent this year under the UPD, the county needs almost $13 million to fill the hole.

The county’s law-enforcement district is expected to decide today after a public hearing whether to raise that money through fees, which would cost homeowners in communities such as Kearns and Emigration Canyon an extra $174 a year and businesses much more.

“We really don’t have a lot of options,” said Councilman Michael Jensen, who serves on the law-enforcement district and is the only council member living in the unincorporated county (Magna). “Do I lay off 40 percent of my deputies? What do I do? It is the absolute Hobson’s choice. There is no win in the choice being given to us.”

The Utah Taxpayers Association condemned the proposed fees Tuesday as a cloaked tax hike that tries to appease homeowners at the expense of businesses.

“Salt Lake’s County Council is looking for a way to make this tax increase more palatable to voters, so they are manipulating the structure to minimize costs to homeowners, and drive up costs on businesses,” the business-backed association wrote. “Instead of trying to stick it to business, Salt Lake County should be transparent, and propose a property tax increase to cover their spending gap.”

County leaders insist the proposed fees would be more equitable than a property-tax increase.

Those fees would be based on who generates police calls. A church would pay less than a Wal-Mart super-center ($1,008 a year compared to $81,912) an auto dealership less than a convenience store with gas pumps ($756 compared to $4,548).

The unincorporated county’s two businesses with more than 1,000 employees, Kennecott and ATK, would fork out a combined $1.4 million to offset their impact on public safety.