Utah senators were forced to choose between two things many of them, and their constituents, care deeply about - drinking water and property-tax relief.
Water was the big winner.The Senate voted 16-12 Monday to kill a measure that would have reduced the maximum taxing authority of water conservancy districts by 25 percent.
SB41, sponsored by Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, would have given the owner of a home valued at $150,000 about an $8 break each year by reducing the maximum mill levy water districts can impose from 0.0004 to 0.0003.
It also would have forced water districts in need of more revenue to raise water rates.
It is a more equitable arrangement, Waddoups argued, to have all water users pay for water improvements than have property owners pay a disproportionate amount.
"I do not want to curtail water development," Waddoups told his colleagues during the first and only floor debate of his bill. "I just think you should pay for what you use.
"Using property taxes to fund water projects penalizes everyone when one person wastes water."
Some senators said they liked the idea of cutting property taxes but worried the bill would stop some water-development projects.
The bill would have permitted districts with the 0.0004 mill levy to continue taxing at that rate until the bonds connected to the increase are paid off. But other districts would not be able to impose the higher tax rate.
Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City, said only Nevada uses more water than Utah and there's a reason for it - Utah is the nation's second-driest state, behind Nevada.
"You lower the (tax rate) and you tie the hands of these other districts in their ability to provide a very, very needed service, which is water, to the state of Utah," Holmgren said. "I don't think we should do that."
Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, supported the bill because he said it removes, to a degree, the hidden nature of water fees. If it's included in your property tax bill, you may not know what you're paying for. But if it's on your water bill, he said, you're not only aware of it but you can make a conscious choice to cut back on your use and save money.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also supported the bill. He said it would not have taken away a water district's ability to impose the higher tax rate in an emergency situation.
Sen. Eddie Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the bill would hurt the people who can least afford it, like renters who would see only a fee increase and no property-tax relief.
Sen. Robert Montgomery, R-North Ogden, said he opposed the bill because it would be a "disruption to a very stable process . . . with $2 billion in water infrastructure due over the next 15 years."
Montgomery said while average homeowners might receive an $8 property-tax reduction, they could pay $25 more a year in water fees.
Waddoups said he figured the cut would translate into no more than a 6.5 percent increase in water rates since only 20 percent of water districts' funding comes from property taxes. He said the bill might cause some water districts with the higher rate to reconsider whether they actually need it.
Waddoups decided to run the bill after the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District raised its tax levy to the highest level in September to pay for a pipeline between the Bear River in Box Elder County and Salt Lake County. He said he isn't sure if he'll raise the issue again in the future.