Finding Service Area 6
November 30, 2012
Summit County is in budget distress, and looking at some unpleasant cuts to make things balance. That’s never easy, and the reality is that cuts in personnel translate into a direct reduction of services the county can deliver. When you lay off the dogcatcher, dogs will go uncaught. If you have fewer snowplow drivers, fewer snowplows will be driven, not that plowing snow appears to be an issue this year. The connection between taxes paid and services delivered is not a difficult concept.
The biggest problem in the county budget is Service Area 6. Here’s where things get complicated. Everybody who lives in Summit County, whether in a city or unincorporated area, pays taxes to the county general fund. That covers stuff the state requires county governments to provide like the courts, jail, clerk, recorder, elections, and so on. The county has some countywide services like garbage pickup that everybody pays for. But there are places in the county where county government is providing direct services that are the same kind of services the municipalities provide. The county does not provide them within the municipalities, or in sparsely populated areas of the county. If you live in a city, you pay taxes to the city for snow removal, street repair, planning, and a bunch of other stuff ranging from cops to public art.
When the county is providing identical services to unincorporated areas, there needs to be a way to pay for them. If they pay out of the general fund, the result is that city residents are subsidizing the cost of plowing county streets. To avoid that, the state requires the county to set up a separate tax on urbanized areas in unincorporated parts of the county. That way, those residents pay for their own municipal-type services instead of sponging off the general fund. Somehow, the snowplow knows whether the street being plowed is a municipal-type street or a county arterial street, and sips diesel from the tank filled from the appropriate budget. That’s why all the snowplows have two fuel tanks. (Well, maybe not.)
In Summit County, the mechanism for funding these municipal-type services to our patches of unincorporated suburban bliss is Service Area 6. The tax rate for Area 6 has not kept up with the actual costs, so it is operating in the red. The residents of Area 6 are sponging off the rest of us, part of Mitt Romney’s 47% who depend on government handouts and don’t take personal responsibility.
The county proposed a tax increase to eliminate the subsidy. Then some Tea Party lady, who ironically doesn’t live within No. 6 (and whose taxes might actually go down if residents of Area 6 paid their own way), organized a petition drive to force an election over the tax increase. So it’s on hold, and Service Area 6 is broke. It’s living on snowplow stamps and other handouts.
It sounds awful, and I got thinking I wanted to see this Area 6, with all its freeloading residents, for myself. Where is it? I’ve never seen a sign anywhere that says, "Welcome to Service Area 6." I could be there and not even know it. The cuts proposed are pretty drastic. Area 6 could devolve into an arctic version of a "Mad Max" world of lawlessness, un-landscaped roundabouts, and slippery roads. So I went in search of Service Area 6.
It turns out there are a lot of Area 6s out there. About 15 different, non-contiguous neighborhoods make up Area 6. It’s Summit Park and Pinebrook, but nothing in between. Neighborhoods with private roads are excluded, since this tax primarily pays for road maintenance. Silver Springs is included, but the commercial areas at Kimball Junction are not, even though there are county roads there. There are odd little colonies of Area 6 scattered around Kamas valley — relatively recent subdivisions — while their equally suburban neighbors in Marion are excluded. Wanship is out; Silver Summit is in. Home Depot out. Silver Creek is so special it has its own service area. Highland Estates in; Old Ranch Road out. Parkwest Village in; Canyons mostly not. County roads snake in and out of Area 6, all plowed by county trucks driven by county employees burning county diesel fuel.
Area 6 is a kind of Twilight Zone. Just because a neighborhood feels like suburbia doesn’t necessarily mean it is officially within Area 6. It’s like some kind of harmonic convergence, or the mysterious Santa Fe hum that only some people can hear. If you are in Area 6, you feel it even if you can’t see it. It’s a vast, soul-less place, defined by the way the wind blows and a line-item on your property tax bill. You could live in Area 6 and not even know it until you notice that the snowplow doesn’t come down your street any more.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.