SALT LAKE CITY — A week from Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to consider implementing a half-penny sales tax hike for roads, transit, housing and police. So far, city leaders say the message from the public is clear: Vote ‘aye.’
"It’s been overwhelmingly supportive," City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards on Monday. "And we take that public comment very seriously."
In fact, Mendenhall said some residents have even encouraged council members to activate a bigger sales tax hike, even though legally that’s not an option.
The 0.5 percent sales tax hike is permitted (pending City Council approval) thanks to a law the Utah Legislature passed in 2015 that provided the sales tax option to offset the impact of the relocated state prison.
But city leaders say the tax hike could benefit the whole city, with roughly $33 million in new money that could put a huge dent in millions of dollars in repairs for 64 percent of the city’s roads — which are rated as poor, or worse — and fund other priorities such as increased transit service, affordable housing and neighborhood policing.
The sales tax is part of a package of two tax increases Mayor Jackie Biskupski proposed in her 2018 State of the City Address.
The other tax hike would be an $87 million general obligation bond that voters would weigh in on this November, if city leaders decide in August to place it on the fall ballot. If approved by voters, the bond would result in an estimated increase of $5 a year in property taxes for the average Salt Lake City homeowner, but replace two bonds approved by voters 20 years ago.
"People want us to address air quality. They want to see police officers in their neighborhoods. They want to be able to ride the bus without it costing more than driving their car," Mendenhall said, calling the sales tax hike an "incredible opportunity" to address needs that have faced Utah’s capital for years.
And most of the sales tax revenue would not even come from residents’ pockets, said Mayor Jackie Biskupski, noting that about 60 percent of the money would come from the thousands who commute to Salt Lake City.
"We know that every day our population doubles in size during the week as people commute into the city for employment," Biskupski said, so a sales tax hike would "make sense to us as a community."
Mendenhall said there’s "cohesive agreement" between the mayor’s administration and the council "that this needs to happen, that this opportunity is really what the state’s prosperity calls for cities to do, which is plan for growth and act on it."
With one last public hearing set to go next week, the evening the City Council is scheduled to vote, Mendenhall said that so far there has been "an incredibly clear message of support that residents want to see this happen."
"So we will look for a vote on April 17," she said.
The final public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Salt Lake City-County Building, 451 S. State Street.
As of Monday, most participants in the city’s online survey, available at fundingourfutureslc.com, supported the two tax hikes. Of about 1,600 responses, roughly 59 percent supported both hikes, according to Matthew Rojas, Biskupski’s spokesman. In response to separate questions about the tax hikes, about 69 percent supported the sales tax hike and 69 percent supported the bond.
In a public hearing last week, most participants also spoke in favor the tax hikes.
Salt Lake City leaders are prepared to ask for the hikes, Biskupski said, after her administration has spent the last two years drafting plans to address the city’s needs: Growing SLC, a five-year housing plan to close the city’s 7,500-unit affordable housing gap, and the city’s Transit Master Plan, a plan to increase citywide transit service.
The city’s needs include at least $5 million a year to implement the city’s new affordable housing plan, $12 million a year to pay for 50 new police officers for neighborhood policing, $8 million a year to increase city transit service, and $20 million a year to bring the city’s overall road system to at least fair condition and to properly maintain roads into the future.
But what’s stopping future city councils or mayors from shifting the money into other priorities in the future? City leaders must be specific about spending for bonds, but there’s nothing legally stopping future leaders from spending the sales tax money elsewhere — unless the city bonds with the sales tax money, Mendenhall said.
"That’s a way we can lock up the spending," she said, adding that the council is "absolutely considering" doing that.
Biskupski said she would also want to transform the Funding Our Future website into a "dashboard" so residents can track how the funding is being spent.
"I want to make sure that this funding is being spent on exactly what we’re asking voters (for)," Biskupski said.
But the proposed sales tax hike also comes at the same time as Salt Lake County’s chance to revive the failed Proposition 1, which would raise nearly $58 million in sales taxes for the county, Utah Transit Authority, and cities for transportation projects.
There’s "never a perfect time" for raising taxes, Mendenhall said, but she noted the $20 million is "really the minimum threshold we should spend" to better position the city for road maintenance.
"So we would welcome any additional transportation dollars to help," Mendenhall said.