Editorial: On short timeline, Summit County Council must weigh tax increase carefully
June 2, 2018
The Summit County Council finds itself in a difficult situation.
Over the winter, the Utah Legislature passed a law allowing counties to implement a handful of sales taxes without voter approval, providing a potential revenue stream to fund critical transportation improvements.
The catch is this: The Council has until the end of the month to decide whether to levy one of the taxes, a 0.25 percent transportation infrastructure tax that would cost residents an average of roughly $45 a year, if it wants to maximize the benefit from it.
If the Council imposes the tax before July 1, the county will keep 100 percent of the revenue it creates until June 30, 2019 — perhaps as much as $3.6 million — before the bulk of future revenue is divvied up among local municipalities. That opportunity disappears if the county waits on the tax or ultimately chooses not to impose it.
Given the vital importance of transportation, the Council would be remiss not to seriously consider voting in favor of the tax this month. The $3.6 million could, for instance, go toward a bus rapid-transit system that is seen as one of the best options to relieve congestion on S.R. 224.
But there are also a number of potential drawbacks that should give the Council pause. For one, it would come less than two years after voters approved a pair of other transportation taxes and less than a year after the county raised property taxes. And another increase could follow, as the county is also considering a separate 0.20 percent tax for transit expenses as a result of the legislative session (though officials don't have to decide on that one until 2023).
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The Council must also evaluate the impact of increased taxes on residents and whether it would make the Park City area less desirable for visitors compared to its ski town competitors.
And as if the matter wasn't complicated enough, county staffers say the state could eventually step in and impose the tax anyway if the county doesn't, stripping local officials of the ability to determine how the revenue generated here is spent.
Ideally, those and other issues surrounding the tax would be debated over the course of several months, with an extensive public outreach effort and series of input sessions allowing residents to provide feedback. But the condensed timeline the county faces precludes that from happening.
That alone is not a reason to pass up the opportunity the tax presents. But it does put added responsibility on the Council to determine what's best for residents and pursue that course of action in good faith. As an added assurance, if the Council does impose the tax, it should commit to rescinding it if the benefits do not ultimately outweigh the taxpayer burden.
With a difficult decision ahead for the Council and little time for public input, voters are left relying on the officials they elected to make the right call.
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