December 9, 2009
Empty chairs outnumbered people — even as the Salt Lake County Council considered approving its first property tax increase in nearly a decade.
Wade Marshall sat alone in his row, leafing through a budget document and wondering aloud whether the county really needs more money when it can afford expenses such as the historic Wheeler Farm.
“I was out of work for two years,” the Murray man said, “I had to make cuts; why can’t they?”
With the recession taking a painful toll on the county’s finances, the council decided Tuesday to tap taxpayers for an extra $13.4 million to balance the books.
It’s a county ledger that doesn’t lean on higher taxes alone, however. Officials also will slash tens of millions of dollars in spending — reducing workers wages, closing some recreation centers on Sundays and pulling funding from programs ranging from urban forestry to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center.
“It is a measured and conservative approach to balancing our county’s budget in difficult times,” wrote Mayor Peter Corroon in a statement.
While the county’s spending plan elicited unexpected praise from the often-critical Utah Taxpayers Association — “We really are, by and large, pleased with how the budget has been handled,” spokesman Royce Van Tassell said — it split the County Council along party lines.
Because of higher property taxes.
The council’s Democratic majority argued higher taxes were needed to maintain critical services. Republicans countered that more cuts could be made to avoid an uptick in taxes that will cost the owner of a $260,000 home about $20 more a year.
That division enraged the council’s Democratic Chairman Joe Hatch, who confronted a conservative colleague after the meeting.
“To say that [the tax increase] is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he bellowed, “that’s outrageous!”
“It’s a big straw,” responded Republican Councilman Jeff Allen.
While Tuesday hearing attracted fewer than 40 people, many agreed with Allen’s assessment: Now is not the time to raise taxes.
“You see people being foreclosed on their homes. You see people losing their jobs. You see people’s 401(k)s being blown apart,” said Justin Holdaway of Cottonwood Heights. “You see everything in the private sector going downhill. But the public sector just continues to grab more and more.”
The one exception came from a Millcreek man, Alden Laney, who said he would gladly pay more for the services Salt Lake County offers.
“I’m in favor of the tax increase,” he said, turning toward the audience. “Did you all hear that? I’m in favor of a tax increase. I like the sidewalks that we walk on. I like the streets that we drive on. My tax increase is not high enough.”
The county’s budget comes amid turbulent economic times, when sales tax revenues have slumped and investment earnings have flat-lined. Those financial hardships have led the county to leave empty more than 300 positions and cut departmental spending in excess of 10 percent in some places. Employees now face a 2.75-percent pay cut and no government contribution to their 401 (k) accounts.
And now, taxpayers will share that pain as well.
“It is truly amazing today that we are not in a more dire situation than we are,” Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson said. “It is because of shared sacrifice.”
It’s a sacrifice Republican Councilman David Wilde doesn’t think taxpayers should be asked to make.
“In a time like this when people are hurting, it is incumbent upon us to do everything possible to avoid a tax increase,” he said.
So Wilde and his colleagues left their own imprint on the 2010 budget: They voted no.