You would have to have lived in Salt Lake County awhile to remember the last time the county enacted a general tax increase that didn't come in the form of a voter initiative. The year was 2000, and the old commission form of government was ending, giving way to the current mayor-council form.
We pushed for that form-of-government change, arguing that it would make budgeting and taxing issues more representative and deliberative. Even though county Mayor Peter Corroon now is proposing a budget that would increase property taxes by $20.85 per year on the average homeowner, we still think this is true.
There is much truth to the argument that governments should avoid any and all tax increases during a time of economic downturn. As governments struggle to find money and provide services, the poor taxpayer often takes one hit after another as special service districts, school boards, city councils, counties and the state each add their own tiny amounts to the general tax burden. The tiny amounts add up to burdens that further impede economic growth.
And yet it would be hard to argue that Corroon is being irresponsible, or that he hasn't made the county bear its own share of cuts. Under his budget proposal, each county employee's salary would be cut by 2.75 percent. The county no longer would match its employees' 401(k) contributions. About 300 county jobs would be eliminated through early retirements and attrition — an overall reduction of 7.4 percent. Employee health insurance coverage would be reduced by 10 percent.
In all, 275 cuts would be made to the overall budget. But Corroon said he couldn't cut any more without harming important services to the elderly, the poor, children or public safety.
In the meantime, the economy is hurting the county, as it is all local and state governments. Sales tax collections have slipped so low that the county no longer can afford to pay off the bond debt on certain projects voters approved through the years. To solve this, the mayor would like to shift the debt to property taxes and enact the small increase mentioned earlier.
We wish this wasn't so, and we would be happy if someone on the County Council could come up with another plan that would avoid a tax increase while still providing essential services and maintaining the county's triple-A bond rating, which ultimately saves taxpayers a lot of money. But counties and other local governments often find themselves in the same position as the lonely taxpayer. The state, in order to avoid its own tax increases, piles burdens on them, from soccer stadiums to mandated increases in retirement contributions, that force them to find extra money.
We doubt the old commission form of government would have held the line on taxes as long as this. Corroon's plan, on the whole, seems a good answer to difficult circumstances.