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Public vs. private tiff may go to new panel

A legislative task force wants to hand off a potentially volatile issue to another, yet-to-be-established task force.

In its final meeting Monday, the state's Tourism Task Force voted to support the creation of a group to study issues surrounding the private use of public facilities "for other reasons than what they were originally intended."

At issue are weddings, receptions, meetings and other activities at public buildings and grounds — such as convention centers, recreation centers, golf courses and libraries — that are funded by tax dollars but instead suck business away from private-sector establishments.

"I'm really bothered by the fact that I am paying taxes so that a golf course can be maintained," said Rep. Peggy Wallace, R-West Jordan. "I know that they have a really great 'green-belt factor' and that they're really good for the environment and everything else, but there's a lot of golfers out there in Utah, and I think they're the ones who can maintain it and keep it rolling."

Gary Nielsen, who owns four Gold's Gyms in Davis and Weber counties, testified that some local governments have built recreation centers and multipurpose health clubs that offer classes and other activities that compete directly with his business. But, he said, they don't pay real estate taxes, personal property taxes on equipment, sales taxes on equipment purchases. Many also were built on existing publicly owned property using general obligation bonds or sales tax revenue bonds.

"Statistically, 13 to 15 percent of the population use health clubs or recreation centers, so what we're doing is taxing people — 100 percent of the population is paying for that use by the 13 to 15 percent," Nielsen said. "The problem is we have to buy business licenses, we pay the taxes into the entity, (then) they turn around and use those taxes to compete directly against us. It's just not fair.

"None of this, we believe, is the core business of the government. . . . Health clubs are not a core essential business of government."

Ernie Schneiter, owner of Schneiter's Riverside Golf Course, said there are 40 public courses owned by the city or county in Salt Lake County alone.

"I just think that private will do a better job more efficiently and save a lot of money. . . . They shouldn't be in the business, that's all," Schneiter said.

Melva Sine, president and chief executive officer of the Utah Restaurant Association, said many Utah restaurants are paying taxes that ultimately are being used against them in the form of public buildings. She noted that the Utah Olympic Park, the Utah State Fairpark and the Museum of Utah Art and History are advertising for meetings, events, receptions and corporate get-togethers and that courthouses are a popular site for receptions.

While Sine said she is unsure how much money is being siphoned away from the private sector, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, suggested it is "well over a hundred million dollars."

"We're just talking about the tip of the iceberg here," Buttars said.

Sine said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is drafting legislation calling for a two-year task force to study the issues.

"It is complex enough for a task force," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful.

"We as a committee need to state that this is a problem, it is getting bigger and it needs to be addressed," Buttars said.

Monday's vote will be part of the task force's report to the Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Interim Committee. The lone dissenting task force vote came from Sen. Patrice Arent, D- South Cottonwood. She said that "even defining what we're studying is difficult" and said she preferred deferring discussion until Stephenson's bill is introduced.