Now it’s up to cities to decide whether your vote three years ago meant anything, sort of.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers left it up to counties to decide whether to impose a quarter-cent sales-tax increase for transit and road projects in spite of the “no” vote that prevailed on Proposition 1 in 2015. Now, Salt Lake County — like a rugby player worried about being tackled — has decided to pass that decision over to the cities.
If cities, towns and metro townships in the county
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representing at least 67 percent of the population pass resolutions in favor of the tax, the county will pass it. So far, Millcreek already has given an enthusiastic “yes.”
Is this bringing government decisions closest to the people, or simply broadening the circle of shifting blame?
County Councilman Richard Snelgrove believes the latter. In a Deseret News story, he called the idea, “a scheme put in place out of fear.”
But his was the only dissenting vote. Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who also happens to be running for Senate as a Democrat, said the plan makes everyone accountable, then added, “Really, what choice do we have? We’re in a position in this community that we have to invest if we want to absorb growth and maintain the quality of life that we have.”
Which brings me to two seemingly contradictory themes about local government in Utah I have been mulling lately.
The first is that in order to plan responsibly for all the growth that is forecast to hit the Wasatch Front in coming years, a politician would have to make decisions that get him or her booted from office. People who live in single-family homes tend to vote against candidates who support more high-density housing or want them to pay for new stuff. Voters in 2015 made it clear they didn’t want to pay more in taxes for transit and road projects.
And yet a quarter-million people are expected to move into an area that spans southern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties over the next 30 years, and they can’t all fit in houses with quarter-acre lots or drive comfortably on the roads we now have.
The Point of the Mountain Development Commission has just released its preferred plan for solving this problem. It includes new major roadways, low-cost or free mass transit that includes more TRAX lines and “micro-transit” options, and plans that would keep jobs close to where people live.
It all sounds great, and it all takes money.
And that’s why my second theme is this: We will never be able to completely satisfy government’s demand for our wallets.
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the Salt Lake area fares well in terms of “urban mobility,” ranking the area 49th in the time it takes to make, during rush hour, what normally would be a 10-minute journey. That time was 21 minutes, as measured in a 2015 report.
It’s a good result, which people might use to argue against new taxes. But of course, a quarter-million new people near the Point of the Mountain could change all that in a hurry.
Are there better ways to fund changes than through conventional taxes? Earlier this year, the Legislature wisely laid the groundwork for more toll roads in the state. By replacing gas taxes with tolls that vary according to traffic conditions, the state could fund roads more intelligently while encouraging people to drive during times when roads aren’t crowded, thus reducing pollution.
It’s worth a try. People then at least would have the choice of avoiding or minimizing what they pay.
But that’s not part of any official plan for growth. Cities, towns and townships in Salt Lake County have until June 22 to decide whether to support the sales tax increase voters rejected. Their decision is not a sure thing.
Councilman Snelgrove was, of course, correct when he called this a scheme based on fear. When accountability is spread to multiple parties, it has little meaning at all. City leaders could said they didn’t actually raise the tax, the county did. County leaders could argue they simply were following the will of cities and towns.
Meanwhile, the county also has the option of putting the tax hike back on the ballot, but that would mean chancing another defeat.
Planning for growth is indeed important, especially in a large metro area consisting of many small communities. It involves risk, which means it requires creative thinking, political will and persuasion. Few things are riskier than ignoring a public vote.