SALT LAKE CITY — The power to resurrect the once-failed $58 million sales tax hike for transportation projects lies in the hands of city leaders. And while Salt Lake County’s biggest city expects to throw its weight behind the measure, some leaders from smaller cities are hoping to start a movement to stop it.
But even then, other city leaders — including those from the county’s second and third largest cities, West Valley City and West Jordan — haven’t yet decided whether to oppose it, while also noting their cities’ roads could use the money.
“Certainly we can use the extra funds,” said West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow. “Roads continue to deteriorate in our city and across the state. … But we’ll need to take it before the council and see where they stand, and we’ll need to go from there.”
West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding said he also isn’t sure whether his city would support it, though he said he might be leaning toward it.
“I’d hate to see the city lose out on road money. … We always need the money, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But again, I’m only one of seven votes, so we’ll see.”
He said it will likely come up on the West Jordan City Council’s agenda later this month.
Cities have until June 22 to signal support to Salt Lake County, which passed an ordinance to automatically enact the 0.25 percent sales tax hike if cities, towns and metro townships representing 67 percent of the county’s population adopt resolutions supporting the tax hike.
If the tax increase is enacted, it would generate about $58 million more for transportation projects in Salt Lake County by raising sales taxes by roughly one penny for every $4 spent.
One city — Millcreek — has already passed a resolution supporting the tax hike, while Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall has said she expects her fellow council members will also follow suit.
Salt Lake County voters narrowly shot down the tax hike — known as Proposition 1 — when it was on the ballot in 2015, but voters in Salt Lake City, which represents about 17 percent of the county’s population of about 1.1 million, supported the tax hike 62 percent to 38 percent.
The tax hike’s second chance at life depends on how many more cities signal support. And as soon as that 67 percent mark is hit, Salt Lake County will give the green light to start collecting the revenue as early as October.
In the tax hike’s first year, Salt Lake County would be able to collect 100 percent of its revenue up until June 30, 2019, after which the funds will be split as if it had passed under Proposition 1: 40 percent to the Utah Transit Authority, 40 percent to cities and 20 percent to counties.
The tax hike is made possible under SB136, the massive transportation bill the Utah Legislature passed this year that officially takes effect Tuesday. The new law allows counties where the tax hike failed when it was on the ballot as Proposition 1 in 2015 to resurrect it by through either approval of the county’s legislative body or by placing back on the ballot.
But Salt Lake County chose a different course and decided to leave the decision up to city leaders.
Since then, some city leaders have already dug in their heels and say they won’t support it.
That includes West Jordan City Councilman Zach Jacob.
“I’m opposed to it now, and I was opposed to it when it was on the ballot three years ago,” he said, adding that he still doesn’t like the fact that the UTA will get some of the revenue.
“Of course, the city could always find ways to spend money,” he said. “We have several projects waiting on funding, but I just don’t like how this tax increase was bundled.”
However, Jacob credited Salt Lake County for leaving the choice up to cities. “The government closest to the people governs best,” he said. “It’s almost a refreshing change of pace.”
But some city leaders criticized the county for “punting” the decision, as Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs called it.
Apollo Pazell, vice chairman of Copperton’s Metro Township Council, agreed, accusing county leaders of placing a “political burden on the backs of city councils.”
“It’s convenient for them to say, ‘Let the cities decide,'” Pazell said. “Well, we did decide when we said ‘no’ three years ago.”
Pazell said he plans to bring a resolution opposing the tax hike on Copperton’s agenda May 16, and he’s hoping to lobby other city leaders to join him in opposing the tax hike.
Pazell might find that support in Riverton, where the mayor and several other council members expressed during a council meeting Tuesday night opposition to the tax hike.
“This went to the people, right? It was voted down,” said Riverton Councilwoman Tricia Tingey. “And so now they’re asking us to override what the people decided? I’ve got a problem with that.”
Riverton Councilwoman Tawnee McCay said she, too, would oppose it. “I feel like we’re already asking residents to give enough, and I just don’t feel like it’s justified,” she said.
But Riverton Councilman Sheldon Steward chimed in, though acknowledging he was “probably on the unpopular side here,” when he pointed out the main reason Proposition 1 failed in 2015 was likely because of UTA’s scandal-tainted past — which he said was addressed in SB136 with the agency’s restructuring.
“I’ve also got to say, ‘What’s the future of Riverton City and the roads of Riverton City?'” Stewart said. “And I got to tell you … there are quite a few roads that are going into disrepair, that are in need of maintenance, and if we don’t do something about those roads then we will be into a state of failure, which costs us even more.”
The Riverton council decided to continue the discussion and perhaps take action at a later date.
As for Salt Lake County’s fourth largest city, Sandy, the tax hike is on a City Council agenda on Tuesday, according to Councilman Zach Robinson.
Robinson said he hasn’t decided whether he supports or opposes the tax hike yet because he wants to discuss it with his fellow council members first, but he noted transportation is a “big issue” for Sandy.
“Transportation is a major concern for our citizens,” he said. “Whether it’s roads or public transit, it’s an issue I heard about when I was campaigning, and it’s an issue we still hear about now.”
But at the same time, Robinson said, “anytime we talk about tax increases we have to realize some people are on fixed incomes, and even the slightest increase can have an impact.”
Robinson said he looks forward to Tuesday’s discussion “because it is such a big deal and a huge part of our community, so I hope we can get some guidance.”
A little further to the south, however, Draper Mayor Troy Walker said he believes his city is “leaning” toward supporting it, though he also said the council needs to discuss it more.
Walker, who has served as a trustee member for UTA, said he “supported Prop 1 to begin with.” Draper “absolutely” needs road and transit funding, he said, and he believes the restructuring of UTA should have addressed the public concerns that caused the tax hike to fail in 2015.
“How do you turn down any money for road improvements?” Walker asked. “We have just as many transportation problems as anyone else — lots of miles of roads and no money to make them better.”