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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County leaders voted to raise property taxes to collect about $16 million more a year despite emotional pleas from taxpayers Tuesday night — many who said they’re living on fixed incomes and can’t keep up with any more tax hikes.
The Salt Lake County Council voted 7-2 to approve the county’s roughly $1.4 billion budget with a 7.88% tax rate increase, slightly lower than the 8.72% tax hike Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson proposed as part of what she called a “no frills” budget. Wilson’s proposal sought to address “huge structural problems” facing the county after years of not capturing inflation despite economic and population growth, she said.
The tax increase would raise taxes about $30.36 a year more on the average Salt Lake County home valued at about $368,000, according to Darrin Casper, the county’s chief financial officer.
The County Council approved the tax hike after slashing about $6.5 million from the budget by making technical shifts from certain funds while also making mostly minor cuts to a variety of departments and programs. That’s on top of what Wilson said her team made for her budget proposal, asking every department to find efficiencies for the slim budget year.
Taxpayers who came to Tuesday night’s meeting expressed frustration with their property tax bills going up what has felt like every year, whether it be for tax hikes from other taxing entities or for increased home value assessments.
Many county residents who voiced those concerns were elderly, retired and on fixed incomes.
“We’re in a world of hurt,” said Ken Parr, of Cottonwood Heights, who said cost of living increases in Social Security haven’t kept pace with increased property tax bills.
“Anytime you guys decide you need more to do this or that, would you think about the rest of us out here?” Parr said. “All you’re doing is taking our standard of living and driving it down.”
Christine Hansen, of Millcreek, who said she lives on a fixed income because she’s disabled, said repeated tax increases are a “tremendous burden” on her budget, even though she gets “indigent” tax relief. She said when she bought her house in 2002, “it was the happiest day of my life,” but since then her taxes have gone up from $811 a year to $2,455 a year.
“It’s going to force me to sell,” she said. “I thought I would be there forever.”
Wilson and the County Council expressed sympathy for those on fixed incomes — urging those taxpayers to check into tax relief programs offered in the county — while also laying out their case for the tax hike.
“We’re all in this together, and I don’t take this lightly,” said Councilman Steve DeBry. “I understand the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
In the last roughly six years since Salt Lake County’s last property tax hike, officials say the county’s budget has become increasingly strained as purchasing power has eroded over time due to inflation. Even though the county’s population has been growing, revenues have been flattening as property tax rates have declined because state statute doesn’t allow tax rates to adjust for inflation, according to county fiscal staff.
The County Council vote gave final approval to the budget after a bit of fireworks over a final-hour adjustment. The proposal by Councilman Michael Jensen was to fully fund the Wilson’s proposed $760,000 for six new full-time employees to help the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit increase its domestic violence caseload — but only if the council could withhold two positions from being filled until after District Attorney Sim Gill filled the other four positions.
The aim of the contingency, Jensen said, was to ensure the positions stay with the SVU unit and not end up elsewhere in the DA’s department. The proposal garnered pushback from some Democrats on the council and Gill — who called it a “silly” micromanagement of his office — but it ultimately passed.
It’s going to force me to sell. I thought I would be there forever.
–Christine Hansen, Millcreek homeowner
Ultimately, even with additional cuts, the final budget kept funding for top priorities supported by both the council and the mayor, including domestic and sexual violence initiatives and stabilization for jail worker pay.
Wilson, speaking to the crowd of frustrated taxpayers, said she took each of their comments to heart and lauded the County Council and county staff for their work on the budget.
“I know each and every one of these (council) members care very much about this community,” the mayor said. “We are doing our best.”
Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton — who is running for governor next year — and Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove were the only two council members who voted against the budget and the tax hike.
Winder Newton said her “no” vote was because she believed there was roughly another $5 million in cuts that she said “would have made this a better budget.”