Derek Jensen
August 1, 2010

Salt Lake City’s dedication to soccer and police is proving a bit costly.

When capital residents rip open their property-tax notices this week, most will see a 16 percent jump in city charges — even though Mayor Ralph Becker pinched departments, pruned programs and approved layoffs to avoid a general property tax spike.

The reason is simple. Bond payments simultaneously are due for last year’s voter-approved $125 million public-safety complex as well as for the $15.3 million soccer-and-softball complex, greenlighted by residents back in 2003.

Beyond that, judgment levies and a $1 million spat with Salt Lake County about “redundant” emergency services, will swell the bills at average-priced homes in excess of $100.

“It will be a hardship for a lot of people,” says Jena Burt, an 82-year-old Poplar Grove resident who lives with her husband on a fixed income. “There are a lot of people down here out of work or working part time. It’s kind of scary.”

The amount will rise further once taxpayers tabulate a Salt Lake City School District increase and a bump in the library levy.

“It really comes across as a slap in the face to Salt Lake City taxpayers,” fumes Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association. “In this economic environment, when taxpayers are having to cut back on their own budgets, it’s just unjustified.”

A truth-in-taxation public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

Gina Chamness, the city’s budget director, says officials already are fielding calls from an uneasy public. While individual tax increases will depend on an owner’s home value, Chamness says “overall, 16 percent is about where it’s going to be.”

A $1 million chunk is a one-time tax to reimburse the city for property-tax disputes, according to David Everitt, Becker’s chief of staff. Another $1.1 million relates to a dispute between the city and county about taxes collected for emergency services such as hazardous materials and bomb-squad investigations.

The city pushed, unsuccessfully, for county leaders to offset that amount, arguing the emergency services already are provided by the city and therefore constitute a redundant tax.

“We are going to jointly request that the Legislature audit that program to see if in fact double taxation is occurring,” says Everitt, who concedes that the collective timing of the property-tax hit “really is unfortunate.”

Van Tassell argues the overall tax burden is unnecessary. After capital residents “stepped up” to approve both bonds, he says, “apparently their thanks is to say, ‘We’re going to tack another $2 million onto your tax bill.’ It’s really difficult to believe that there isn’t $2 million in cuts that can be made.”

Everitt says no way.

“The residents made it very clear during the budget process that they were not willing to have certain services and programs cut,” he says. Despite that, the popular YouthCity Artways program was eliminated, park maintenance was trimmed, garbage fees were raised, and 70 jobs were erased.

In all, Everitt says, every Becker budget since his 2007 election has constituted a “cut fest.”

urt, the Poplar Grove retiree, said she fully supports the new public-safety complex because police and firefighters are “jammed in that old building.” At $75 on a $260,000 home, that bond accounts for the bulk of the property-tax boost. Still, when Burt was told about the average tab on this year’s notice, she gasped.

“I haven’t gotten mine yet,” she sighs. “But all my neighbors said the value of their home went down but their property tax went up.”

Timing, it seems, is everything.