The next three Tooele City Council meetings on May 16, June 6 and June 20, may be defining moments for Mayor Debbie Winn and the City Council.
On those three dates, the mayor, and council members Melody Gochis, Dave McCoy, Brad Pratt, Steve Pruden and Scott Wardle, are anticipated to further discuss the city’s tentative $48 million 2018-19 fiscal year budget that was approved on May 9.
A proposed tax increase is part of that tentative budget, and its amount may bring droves of concerned citizens and business owners to City Hall.
As reported on the front page of last Tuesday’s edition, the proposed tax increase, if the council approves it on June 20 at its current amount, means a $239,000 homeowner would see their city property tax jump from $256 in 2017 to $585 in 2018.
The difference is nearly a 129-percent increase.
The proposed tax increase for a Tooele City business owner adds up to even more. A $239,000 business that paid $463 in city property tax in 2017 would pay up to $1,062 this year.
According to Mayor Winn, the proposed tax increase is the first for the city in nearly four decades. She said the additional tax revenue would address a number of budget concerns, plus increased labor and healthcare costs for city employees. It would also help pay for capital improvements — like building a new police department building — and other projects that can no longer be deferred.
Mayor Winn and the council appear aware as to how taxpayers may perceive the proposed tax increase.
“… I have struggled with this recommendation,” she said. “It is not easy to make a decision that is going to affect our lower income residents, our seniors specifically. … But I believe that by the transparency we have shown the past two months, we have let our residents know what the money is going to be used for.
“… It’s been 36 years. I’m sorry we have to be the bad guys,” Winn said. “The council and I are willing to take that upon us.”
Such willingness to be bad guys for the good of the city likely won’t go untested. When it comes to property tax increases, Tooele City taxpayers have seen more than one county property tax hike since Tooele County government’s budget crisis that erupted in 2012. And none of those increases were as high as the amount Winn and the council has proposed.
In addition, there have been recent tax increases for the Tooele County School District for new school bonding. Plus, voters last fall passed a voted local levy to increase teachers’ pay, but the amount of that tax increase won’t be known until next month when the Utah State Tax Commission releases the certified tax rate.
Tooele City evidently is in need of additional revenue. That point became clear during a series of town hall meetings at City Hall since late February, during which department heads publicly presented their respective needs before the council. Most if not all gave detailed lists of funding deficiencies and/or urgently needed maintenance or capital improvement projects. And when Mayor Patrick Dunlavy retired last December, he warned that the next administration would likely have to raise city property taxes to address growing costs.
Ultimately, the council will choose whether or not to impose the proposed tax increase, or to modify the amount, up or down. Regardless, the matter won’t be entirely finalized until a required Truth in Taxation hearing in August.
At the City Council’s next three meetings, citizens and business owners may decry the proposed tax hike. Or they may tell city leaders what was often heard from citizens at town hall meetings during the county’s past budget crisis: smaller and more frequent tax increases are preferred instead of larger and less frequent ones.
Whatever the outcome, it is hoped the open transparency Winn and the council achieved during this year’s budget review process won’t suddenly vaporize while the merit of the proposed city property tax increase is evaluated by the public.
That review process will culminate next month when the City Council holds a public hearing on the tentative budget before adopting it. May the hearing spur healthy debate that helps both city leaders and citizens determine a course for Tooele City.