Officials place hopes in draft bill to change Utah petition law
Park City and Summit County officials are already working with state lawmakers to rewrite the rules regarding citizen referendum petitions.
Last fall, Summit County Council members were forced to roll back two planned tax increases after a citizens group successfully petitioned for a voter referendum on the issue. That left council members with a budget shortfall and raised questions about the current petition process.
"Most parties support the idea of a petition," said Diane Foster, Park City interim city manager. "It’s democratic. But this law probably needs a little tweaking, because in some ways, it’s not democratic in that a minority is deciding for the majority."
In December 2012, the Summit County Council passed increases for the Municipal Fund and Service Area #6 taxes, following a Truth in Taxation hearing.
law, the council was required to hold a second Truth in Taxation hearing in August, halfway through the county’s budget cycle.
Tax increase opponents had five days from the time the county passed the increases to file a petition. Petitioners then had an additional 40 days to collect signatures equal to 12.5 percent of the total county votes cast for President in the last presidential election.
If successful, the petition would roll back the tax increases and put them on a future ballot, where voters can either approve the tax increases, or reject them.
A Summit County group did successfully petition the tax increases in October, leaving no time for the county to put the measure on the November general election ballot, causing the tax increases to be halted until the 2014 general election, or until a municipal or special election, if paid for by the county.
"All this is brand new territory for everybody in the state of Utah," Summit County Auditor Blake Frazier said at the Dec. 19 Truth in Taxation hearing. "There has never been a property tax increase halted by a petition."
Foster said the timing of property tax petitions is particularly difficult for counties because of when their Truth in Taxation hearings are.
"It’s really impossible," she said. "And the fact that they have to have two Truth in Taxation hearings, and that the petition is done basically after all the hearings are done, makes it very difficult."
Though Park City hasn’t directly faced the same problems as Summit County when it comes to petitioning, Foster said the city is indirectly impacted.
"Frankly when it affects the county, it affects the city," she said. "For example, we have a lot of sheriff services, and we work a lot with the Sheriff Department. So if the sheriff gets hit hard, that affects the city."
Foster noted that 2,200 tax petition signers affected the lives of 37,000 Summit County residents.
"In Park City, only 400 people would have to sign a petition. And as you look at petitions around the state, it looks like they are growing in popularity," she said.
Summit County Council Chair Dave Ure acknowledged that the petitioners had a right to use the law in the manner they did.
"It’s a constitutional right," he said. "I do not bad mouth the petition itself. I do bad mouth the timing of it, though, as well as the fact that other people were able to sign something that did not affect them. The petition should be signed by only those who it affects. In other words, people outside Service Area #6 should not have been able to sign the petition. So hopefully that’s what the Legislature will see and change."
The bill aims to alter the dates that petitions can be passed, so that entities aren’t halfway through their budget cycle when the funds they counted on essentially disappear. There are also plans to restrict who can sign petitions.
"There is a component to ensure that those who sign the petition are directly affected by the tax increase," said Lincoln Shurtz, Utah League of Cities and Town director of legislative affairs. "And that would apply primarily to independent special districts in the county or municipal boundaries."
Concepts are still being finalized in the draft legislation. The next step is to determine bill sponsorships, Shurtz said.
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