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Legislators should turn S.L. County into one city-county entity

SHARE Legislators should turn S.L. County into one city-county entity

There it is again, hot on your tail. Just when you thought the last quarter you dropped in was enough to let you shake it, the Family Center at Union Fort starts dancing once again at the far end of the taxpayer video screen.

The Salt Lake County arcade has its share of monotony.First, the County Commission couldn't move fast enough to give away sales tax dollars to the owners of the center so they could expand. Now that they have expanded, a neighboring city is trying to annex the center, and county commissioners say they can't absorb the loss of revenue without raising property taxes in the unincorporated area.

Some excitement. Either way, you pay.

Want to turn it off? Consolidate the entire county into one government.

That's an old idea that never has caught on, although it has worked nicely in other parts of the country. But the need never has been greater. Frankly, the prognosis for the county's unincorporated areas isn't good. Like it or not, the agony the shopping center is causing right now may be the first throes of death pangs for the unincorporated area as we know it.

Midvale's annexation, which is not yet a done deal, would take 13,000 people out of unincorporated status - roughly the same 13,000 who voted three years ago not to form their own city, speaking of ironies. But don't kid yourselves. People aren't so important here. To run a city - which technically is what the county does for about 300,000 unincorporated people - a large base of commercial taxpayers is needed. In the fish pond of taxpayers, profitable shopping areas such as the Family Center are Great White Whales. Midvale is sharpening its harpoons over the Family Center, and the throngs of residents will just happen to come aboard because they got caught in the net.

But if the Family Center goes, the county will be left with few other whales in its ocean. An incorporation drive under way in a different part of the county might take the Cottonwood Mall with it. That would leave the Cottonwood Corporate Center as one of the few remaining big taxpayers, but it, too, could soon find itself in a city.

Every time one of these large commercial centers goes to a city, the county is left scrambling to pay for sheriff's deputies, firefighters and other essential workers to cover the people who are left. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that taxes will rise.

The current scramble is nothing more than municipal Darwinism - the survival of the communities with the fittest tax bases. Left on its own, this natural selection will leave several large areas out of luck: Holladay, Millcreek, Kearns and Magna, to name a few. No city would want these areas because they don't have any significant commerce to offer.

Forget the Darwinian theory. It's time for a little municipal creationism on the part of state lawmakers. A legislative solution is the only answer. Lawmakers either have to draw lines and decide which cities absorb the areas in question, or they will have to find a way to consolidate the entire county into one city-county government.

The latter solution is by far the best. Once again, we turn to the Family Center as an example why.

When the county originally dangled millions in tax dollars as an incentive for the center to expand, it wasn't creating new business. It was stealing existing businesses from other local governments. Shop-pers who were used to spending mon-ey in Sandy, Midvale and Murray were lured to the bigger selection of stores and shops. Instead of having their money go toward police, fire and other services in those other cities, it would have gone to the developer.

As long as the county is fragmented into several local governments, they will continue to compete with each other for a bigger share of the commercial tax base, even if it means giving some of the money away in the process.

And, of course, several different police and fire departments, each with their own administrations and equipment costs, will continue to drain public coffers while they try to coordinate enough to keep from stum-bling over each other.

If this continues, Salt Lake County residents, those in cities and those not, will have a difficult time trying to shoot down all the growing tax problems that run across their video screens.

No matter how you turn the joystick to get a better shot at them, you'll always end up having to dig into your pocket for more quarters.