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SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill putting an end to Salt Lake County's controversial Unified Police Department fee passed the House Tuesday.
HB226, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, bans special service district fees as of Jan. 1, 2012, except in less-populated counties.
The Unified police fee requires property owners in the unincorporated part of the county to pay a service fee based on the size of the property.
Harper said lawmakers gave the authority to create the department in 2009 with the understanding it would not result in a tax or fee increase. But, he said, the county turned to what he described as a "creative mechanism" to balance its budget by charging residents and businesses a fee for police services.
"This was in response to hundreds, if not thousands of people who contacted members of the Legislature saying, 'What on earth is going on here? Why are we getting these notices? We haven't budgeted for it,'" said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan. "We look for things like this through a property tax."
Harper added, "It's time to set the policy and make sure it's clear" that such fees can't be charged.
The House voted 54-17 for the bill, which now goes to the Senate.
Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said the fee is imposed on about half of his district yet was never contemplated by lawmakers. "We need to fix it," he said.
Several Democrats spoke in favor of the bill, including Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna. Duckworth said her constituents in the unincorporated part of the county "call me with mostly anger about the fee."
- "It's not our role to come in here and usurp local control, local decision making." -House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake
- "At the end of the day, we have to fund police services." -Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon
- "Cities and counties are political subdivisions of the Legislature," giving lawmakers the right to step in. -Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman
- "Hundreds, if not thousands, of people...contacted members of the Legislature saying, 'What on earth is going on here? Why are we getting these notices? We haven't budgeted for it,'" -Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan
However, House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said while he understands the feelings of those paying the fee, undoing the county's action amounts to lawmakers "usurping the power of a local entity" because they don't like the decision made by the entity.
"I think the county recognizes this is not a popular fee," Litvack said, and is taking steps to reduce it. "It's not our role to come in here and usurp local control, local decision making."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake, agreed. "It was done with a lot of input, it was done with transparency. Albeit not popular, but they made a tough decision and I think we shouldn't be telling them that wasn't the correct decision," she said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon agrees that the fee is unpopular, but the county had limited options when the recession resulted in a significant decline in sales tax revenues.
Sales taxes largely fund the county's Municipal Services fund, which pays for law enforcement, public works, animal services, justice courts, and planning and development. To cover the Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Service Area budget, the county had to either increase property taxes, cut municipal services or impose a fee. A fee was selected because it is transparent and it can be adjusted more readily than property taxes.
"No one likes the police fee. The citizens don't like, the sheriff doesn't like it. I don't like it. At the end of the day, we have to fund police services," Corroon said.
As unpopular as the fee has been, the law enforcement service area collected 93.8 percent of the total billed in 2010 for total collections of $11.3 million, according to its collections report.
"This pay rate is nearing the 95 percent pay rate of property taxes. Considering that the fee represented a new way to pay for local law enforcement services, this pay rate is phenomenal," the report said.
The fee has twice been lowered because the improved revenue projections in the county and the service area board's response to appeals.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where Corroon predicted its passage given its support by Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.
"I'm not sure why the Legislature would vote against it. The problem is, the sheriff will have to live with the consequences," Corroon said.
Still, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said "cities and counties are political subdivisions of the Legislature," giving lawmakers the right to step in. He pointed out that Kennecott has been assessed $1.5 million under the fee and "that just doesn't seem right."
Harper amended the bill on the floor to exclude the state's less populated counties to protect smaller fire districts put in place in the 1990s at the request of residents.