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Residents blast tax-hike plan for rec-center cost overruns

It was a potent list of ingredients:

A rancor-coated public hearing, the bite of a proposed tax increase, tempers hovering around the boiling point, steamed allegations of mismanagement and heaping portions of acrimony so bitter you could almost taste it.The public hearing before Salt Lake County Regional Service District No. 1 Tuesday night had all the fixins of a first-class friction fricassee - and when it was over, trustees were still stewing about whether to boost the district's property tax levy by 31 percent.

That question was scheduled to be resolved at 11 a.m. Wednesday during a special meeting when trustees are expected to vote on the proposed tax increase.

David Howick, executive director of the service district, said the tax increase will generate about $465,000 for equipment and staffing "start-up" costs when the new $11 million addition to the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center opens in July.

But that idea was as palatable as anchovy-and-peanut butter pizza to about 100 agitated taxpayers who turned out at the Kearns Recreation Center to challenge both the tax hike and question the ability of trustees to run the service district effectively.

"If I ran my investment business like this (district) is run," said Kearns resident Chuck Newton, "I'd be in jail right now."

Newton was carrying several copies of a recent state audit of the service district that was highly critical of its management practices, financial controls and the compensation given to Howick.

Outside the meeting room, Newton said he doubted his comments would do much good in forestalling a tax hike that would boost property taxes on a $75,000 home by more than $17 a year and about $31 annually on a business of the same approximate value.

"The board doesn't have an arms-length relationship with Howick," he complained. "They have no idea what's going on . . . they will do whatever he wants."

Vicki Watkins of Kearns, who stayed for the entire two-hour hanging of the district's laundry, said the $11 million fitness-center expansion is overkill, and was not wanted by local taxpayers.

"I don't want four d--- pools," she said.

"How did this (expansion) go from the $5.5 million we approved to $8.5 million and finally $11 million?" Watkins asked. "It's too much (facility) for this area. . . . I don't think people will use it."

Paul Wallace of Kearns said he believes the board is well aware it has gone way beyond anything taxpayers approved in 1991.

"Now they're trying to cover their tails," he said, adding he's not happy with the explanation trustees are giving about the costs.

"There needs to be a tax increase," Wallace conceded, "but the amount they're asking is over and above what is appropriate."

Helen James challenged the district's claim that it has been reducing the certified tax rate in recent years, saying she can show tax notices that indicate the portion of her property taxes levied by the district have increased each year.

And Alan Gale, who filed to run for one of two seats on the board of trustees up for election next month, says he's so upset about the tax increase that he plans to drop out of the race and support two other candidates to improve their chances of winning.

"This is wrong," he said. "We voted for a $5.5 million facility. Now they're spending $11 million. . . . Who gave them the authority to do that? We didn't. We've got to get a new board in office and move this board out of there," he added.

Trustee Janice Snider said that unless the increase is approved, the new expansion will not open next summer and begin generating the revenues needed to repay the construction bond.

But Kearns resident Lynn Quilter urged trustees to reconsider and come up with a compromise that would eliminate the need for a tax increase and still allow the center to open on time.

"This issue needs to be handled quickly," he told trustees, "but I don't want to see it handled quickly, in the heat of emotion."

Doral Vance, a state tax auditor running for the district board, said he's looked over financial statements and believes there are ways to trim down projected costs.

Trustees struggled with a decision on whether to vote on the tax increase Tuesday night when only two of three members were there - Eugene Pearson was absent because he was conducting a wedding - or to vote another time when all three people could be there.

That ended in the decision to hold the vote Wednesday morning, allowing Pearson to voice any concerns he has and then cast a vote.

Nobody spoke in favor of the proposed increase.