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Water, taxes don’t mix?

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A majority of Utahns are opposed to paying for water through their property taxes, according to a new poll.

The Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV found 50 percent of those questioned said they strongly favor or somewhat favor outlawing the property tax on water. Some 41 percent somewhat or strongly oppose changing the current system. The rest didn't know.

It's good news to Utah Taxpayers Association President Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who plans to introduce a bill in the 2002 Legislative session that would abolish the property taxes levied by water districts.

Backers, which include the Utah Rivers Council, say the taxes insulate water users from the true cost of their water consumption.

"We're not at all surprised," said Zachary Frankel, director of Utah Rivers Council. He said the latest poll echoes similar sentiments of Utahns six years ago. About 76 percent of Utahns polled by Dan Jones in 1995 said they would rather pay higher water rates to fund water projects than raise taxes.

Currently, every property owner's tax bill includes an assessment by water districts. Under Stephenson's bill, water districts would have to bill consumers directly for the cost of supplying water.

Stephenson's bill likely would force water suppliers to raise rates. But conservationists hope that will force Utahns to conserve.

David Ovard, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, isn't so sure.

"A lot of people don't understand," Ovard said about the need to tax for water. "If we can't tax we would have to have a monthly minimum rate, which would have no impact on conservation. All it would be doing is taking away a tax-deductible payment."

Water officials, along with Gov. Mike Leavitt, have been harping on Utahns to stop taking water for granted.

Two consecutive years of drought have depleted Utah's reservoirs, and there could be little water available next year without some heavy winter storms.

Leavitt has launched a statewide water conservation campaign urging residents to avoid watering between the hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and to adjust timers on sprinklers according to seasons. It's part of the television and radio spots that include the tips.

While not taking a firm position on Stephenson's proposed legislation, Leavitt did suggest at a monthly news conference in August that Utah might need to revamp the way it pays for water so as to encourage conservation.

"Is it reasonable for us to be pricing water, where the more you use, the cheaper it is?" Leavitt told the Associated Press. "Maybe we ought to be pricing it to where the more we use, the more it costs.

"And is it reasonable for us to be paying taxes to subsidize other people's water use? Or would it be better for us to say, let's have lower taxes and have water rates reflect our use?" he said.

Ovard said that Stephenson's plan would make it harder to bond for projects because property tax revenue looks more secure to lenders than sales revenue.

Furthermore, he said it would hurt a number of agencies that use taxes to supply water for fire protection, flood control, watershed management and recreation.

"I think people are fairly comfortable with how we deliver water service," Ovard said. "If we were to make a major change, it would turn everything upside down."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com