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ROLE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT BAFFLES MANY

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Utahns may prefer government closest to the people, but they don't really understand how local government operates, what taxes can be levied by local governments, what officials are elected versus appointed, or what services are provided by county versus city governments.

That according to a study by the Utah Association of Counties released Monday during a press conference at the state Capitol."People don't understand what we do," said Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson, reciting the laundry list of county services that included operating jails, providing mental-health services and offering substance abuse and prevention programs that are not offered by city governments.

As part of the study, Dan Jones and Associates interviewed 1,217 Utahns in all 29 counties to measure their opinions about different levels of government regarding use of tax monies and responsiveness to citizens, to evaluate their familiarity with elected county officials, to assess their knowledge about which services are provided by counties and which by cities and to identify attitudes regarding specific county tax issues.

County taxing authority, which is dictated by state law, has been a sore spot for county commissioners across the state, and the Utah Association of Counties is continuing to pressure state lawmakers to expand the type of taxes that can be imposed by counties to pay for rapid growth being experienced in most parts of the state.

In the 1996 Legislature, the counties fought for a one-quarter percent countywide sales tax, but the measure failed on the last day of the session. Currently, counties can only collect sales taxes from sales in unincorporated portions of the county, and those revenues must be spent on services for residents in those unincorporated areas.

Property taxes remain the only source of revenue available to county governments to spend on countywide services.

Counties want to balance tax revenues between property and sales tax, "to pick up where one lets off," said Davis County Commissioner Carol R. Page. "People have to pay some (sales tax) for the services they receive."

County officials are clearly using the poll results to resume the sales tax fight in the 1997 Legislature. When Utahns were questioned about whether the Legislature or county commissions should control the tax structure of county government, 69 percent said county officials definitely or probably should have control over their own tax structures. Only 23 percent said the Legislature should dictate what taxes counties can impose.

Some 45 percent of those questioned said counties should be able to levy a sales tax.

County officials want to make a concentrated effort to educate the public about where its money is going. Brent Gardner, director of Utah Association of Counties, discussed several ways counties are delivering information to citizens. Summit County sends out a newsletter and Washington County has a half-hour radio program. Salt Lake County does "extensive work to educate the public," said Gardner.

Those efforts notwithstanding, 61 percent of those questioned in the study got their information about county government from newspapers, and 14 percent from other media.

Other polls results included:

- Three out of five people questioned were very unfamiliar or somewhat unfamiliar with the elected officials who run their counties.

- Half of those questioned had never called or visited county government offices.

- Utahns believe that county officials are influenced by special interest groups.

- About 80 percent of Utahns believe good local officials are unfairly defeated in elections as a result of voter frustration toward state or federal policies and decisions.

- Utahns strongly agree that county governments need to do a much better job of communicating with citizens.

- 60 percent agree that elected county officials are well qualified for their jobs.

- Half of those questioned agree that county government is more powerful than city gov-ern-ment.

- More than half do not know which services are provided by county governments that cities do not provide.

- Utahns believe city governments are most frugal with tax dollars, followed by the state, county and federal government, re-spec-tive-ly.

- 80 percent of Utahns do not know what percentage of their property taxes go to county governments.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent.