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The City Journals

Sandy City Council adopts tentative budget with 34 percent property tax increase

Jun 13, 2019 11:22AM ● By Justin Adams

Councilmember Zach Robinson, who proposed the tentative budget containing a tax increase, reacts to the council passing his motion. (Justin Adams/City Journals)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

Sandy City will be going through the state-mandated Truth in Taxation process this summer after the City Council voted to adopt a tentative budget that includes a 34 percent property tax increase. 

The tentative budget was passed by a 4-3 margin during the council’s June 11 meeting. The move to increase the city’s property tax revenue triggers what is known as the Truth in Taxation process. Utah law requires that a public hearing be held whenever a taxing entity, in this case a municipal government, proposes to raise revenue through property taxes. Those hearings are often filled with unhappy residents demanding to know why their tax bill is going up.

Context

For a long time Sandy has had one of the lowest tax rates in Salt Lake County. Currently, the city collects about $208 from the owner of a $300,000 home in property taxes (a fraction of the owner's overall property tax bill), according to a 2017 chart on the Sandy city website. A similar property owner would owe property taxes north of $600 in cities like Riverton, West Valley and Herriman. 

Being near the bottom of the list when it comes to taxes is great for residents, but the city’s frugality may have caught up with itself. The city administration laid out what it sees as a need for increased revenue in its tentative budget. 

“The costs of maintaining our service levels throughout the community have continued to grow each year from inflation and population growth. A major issue facing the City is that two of our three major financing sources for our General Fund, property and franchise taxes, are declining or remaining stagnant and unable to keep up with rising costs. This means our revenues have less buying power, which makes it increasingly more difficult to maintain our service levels.”

“I may be the first Republican to go on record as supporting a tax increase, but I don’t have any money left to operate your city so we could desperately use it,” said Mayor Kurt Bradburn during a city council meeting earlier this year

A lack of available funds is visible throughout the city, from city buildings in desperate need of repair and renovation, to the police and fire departments being under-staffed, to city infrastructure in need of updating. Just this year, residents witnessed first-hand the effects of the latter when fluoride and lead was mistakenly leaked into the drinking water of hundreds of residents

While everyone within the city acknowledges these urgent needs, not everyone was on the same page as to how they should be funded.

“I’m struggling with the fact that I think there are still a lot of areas of fat in our budget that we need to cut before we do a massive property tax increase,” Councilwoman Maren Barker, who voted against the tentative budget.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Councilman Chris McCandless, who also voted against it. “I think the mayor’s budget that he presented was a good budget without a tax increase.”

Impact

The 34 percent increase in property tax revenue for the city, if approved, would translate to an extra $31.08 per year for an owner of a $350,000 home.

Councilwoman Brooke Christensen, who voted for the tentative budget said that’s a reasonable amount. 

“I think this is necessary,” she said, addressing other council members prior to the vote. “I hope you’ll consider what a minimal impact this is, especially since I know that District 1 has the most low-income housing of any district in our city.”

However, in previous meetings McCandless noted that Sandy would not be the only entity digging a little deeper into taxpayers’ pockets this year. 

For example, Canyons School District’s recent teacher pay raise will cost the average homeowner an extra $144 per year, according to the Deseret News. Or there’s the Salt Lake County sales tax increase that started last fall (with a little help from this same Sandy City Council).  

On the other hand, the increased revenue from a tax increase will have big impacts for city employees, particularly those charged with keeping Sandy residents safe. 

The proposed tax increase would raise nearly $3 million additional revenue for the city each year. (However, the overall tax burden on Sandy residents will be offset somewhat by the elimination of a street lighting fee that collects just over $1 million per year.) The tentative budget calls for the new revenue to go towards a number of things, but one of the most notable is the hiring of five additional police officers and seven additional firefighters. 

Councilman Zach Robinson, who has led the campaign for a property tax increase, used to be a Sandy city firefighter. 

“As an employee of the city’s fire department, I was told time and time again that we were going to get help. What I’m proposing is that help for our employees,” he said. 

Chief Bruce Cline of the Fire Department said he was excited about the adoption of the tentative budget. “I know nobody likes tax increases,” he said, “but this will definitely improve the service that we are able to provide to our residents.”

Cline also said that as a resident of Sandy himself, he took a look at what the tax increase would cost him, and decided he was willing to pay more in order to keep the city safer.

The tentative budget also includes over $100,000 for new uniforms and equipment for the police and fire departments.

“We’ve been down for so many years as far as personnel and equipment, for the last couple years we’ve been making great strides to where we should be,” said Sandy Police Chief Bill O’Neal. “Those additional seven officers will greatly help us in providing that level of service that we need for the city.”

“We’re really encouraged to see that [the council] has allocated that money toward public safety,” said Sandy Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton. “That’s a core function of government. We’re not spending it on frivolous things. It’s firefighters, police officers, equipment and training for them. On every survey we’ve done, that’s residents’ number one priority.”

Going Forward

The date for Sandy’s Truth in Taxation hearing is expected to be set during the June 18 city council meeting, when the council will also formally signal their intention to raise its property tax rate. 

Nothing is official until the Truth in Taxation hearing, in which the council can change its mind and revert to a lower tax increase (or none at all) and cut the new budget items accordingly. Even during the June 18 meeting the council may opt to amend some details of the tentative budget. 

Meanwhile, the administration will be launching a public information campaign to educate residents about property taxes - how they work and why an increase for Sandy’s share of it is necessary.

“I think the biggest misunderstanding about property taxes is how little of it the city actually gets. We only get ten percent of their total, and we do a lot with that ten percent,” said Everton.

So while the amount of property tax that Sandy city collects might increase by 34 percent, that doesn’t mean a home owners’ overall property tax will increase by that amount. Just the roughly 10 percent designated for the city. 

Everton said the administration is confident that it can successfully “sell” the tax increase to the public.

“Last year we cut $1.3 million from the budget,” she said. “That was important for us to be able to say, ‘We’ve cut ourselves as lean as we could possibly get.’ That way when we come and ask for a tax increase, we can make the case that it is necessary.”

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