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Salt Lake City finding early support for 2 proposed tax hikes

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City resident Bob Barr said "it’s never in the interest" of government to represent its current constituents because it’s "a whole lot easier to get taxes from growth" than it is from tax hikes.

So Barr spoke in favor of Salt Lake City’s two proposed tax increases on Tuesday, urging Salt Lake City to catch up on road repair and other underfunded issues — but to do it in a responsible way.

"We need to get people who live here to pay the true cost of what it costs to live here," he said, though he pleaded with city officials not to waste the funds and to plan a more sustainable future for Utah’s capital.

"We’ve grown enough," Barr said. "We need to start looking at ways to sustain what we have."

Barr was one of a dozen residents who spoke at a public hearing before the City Council, one of several public meetings planned as Salt Lake City leaders continue to gauge public appetite on two proposed tax increases to fund street repair, affordable housing, transit and police.

The first, a 0.5 percent sales tax increase that would bring in about $33 million in annual revenue, is up for a potential vote from the City Council in two weeks, on April 17.

The sales tax hike, which would add about 5 cents for every $10 spent — excluding sales on food and big-ticket items like vehicles — just needs City Council approval thanks to a law passed in 2015 that provided the sales tax option to offset the impact of the relocated state prison.

The other, an $87 million bond, would need City Council approval by August to be placed on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the bond would result in an estimated increase of $5 a year in property taxes for the average Salt Lake City homeowner, but would replace two bonds approved by voters 20 years ago.

So far, the potential tax hikes aren’t seeing very much controversy. Of 1,069 responses to the city’s online survey, on fundingourfutureslc.com, 70 percent supported both the sales tax hike and the bond as of Tuesday morning, according to city staff.

Most of Tuesday night’s participants spoke in favor of the proposed tax hikes, urging for the city to use the funds to address pressing issues like affordable housing.

"As far as the tax increase — triple it," resident Bernie Hart said. "Ask for it, and I think the city will give it to you because they would like to see solutions to these problems."

Two residents spoke against the tax increases, however, including Cristobal Villegas, who took issue with the plan to use funds to help pay for the additional 50 police officers the city decided to hire last year amid strain from Operation Rio Grande. He argued more police on the streets won’t help minority groups feel safe.

"We have $12 million going to public safety yet we only have $5 million going to housing," Villegas said. "So I ask you, what really are your priorities?"

In the midst of their search for public feedback, city leaders have broken down funding needs into four priority areas and their funding needs. They include:

• Streets: $20 million a year from the bond for road repair and $5 million a year from sales tax for ongoing maintenance.

• Housing: $5 million a year from the sales tax to implement the city’s new housing plan, including providing low-interest loans to affordable housing developers, down payment assistance and affordable housing case management.

• Transit: $8 million annually from the sales tax to contract with the Utah Transit Authority to increase east-west bus service, increase frequency, and improve quality of transit stops.

• Police: $12 million a year from sales tax to pay for the 50 new police officers, increase neighborhood policing, and increase services in dispatch and the courts.

Resident Dave Iltis said he was "very supportive" of the tax increases, but he urged city leaders to create a more specific "vision" for exactly what the revenue would be used for.

"It’s not cohesive — it’s a very cobbled together approach," Iltis said. "I want a better city, not just better streets."

Exactly what the funds will be used for has yet to be decided. Earlier Tuesday, council members discussed the funding priorities and some possible changes, though they informally voted to continue with public input as the priorities are currently laid out.

Councilman Charlie Luke suggested using the $5 million set aside housing initiatives for roads instead, noting that while the city doesn’t have any additional revenue streams for transit, police or roads, it does for housing, through the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

But Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall balked at not setting aside any money for housing, arguing the city’s Redevelopment Agency wouldn’t be able to spend $5 million on affordable housing every year, and there’s no telling if future councils would have the same support for affordable housing as the current council.

For more input, the city has scheduled two public workshops Wednesday at the Sorenson Unity Center, 1383 S. 900 West, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The final public hearing and potential City Council vote on the sales tax hike is scheduled for April 17 at 7 p.m., 451 S. State Street.

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