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Group sues Pleasant Grove, claiming 'underhanded' road utility fee is illegal

FILE - Arguing a new fee being collected from Pleasant Grove residents is illegal under Utah's Constitution, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit group is suing Pleasant Grove city — and they hope the lawsuit will set a precedent to stop fees in other cities.
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PLEASANT GROVE — Arguing that a new fee being collected from Pleasant Grove residents is illegal under Utah's Constitution, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit group is suing the city of Pleasant Grove.

The group hopes the lawsuit will set a precedent to stop similar practices in other Utah cities.

The Libertas Institute announced the lawsuit Thursday in a news release, arguing that a transportation utility fee Pleasant Grove began collecting this week is illegal based on Utah's Constitution, state statutes and previous court opinions on how taxes and fees must be established.

"We think cities have to follow the law, and when they're not, someone needs to hold them accountable," Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said.

Boyack said courts in several other states have overturned similar transportation utility fees based on the argument included in Libertas' lawsuit: that because the government "cannot quantify exactly who uses the roads how often and how much, general taxation must fund their construction and maintenance," he said.

"While Pleasant Grove has several options to go directly to voters to seek a tax increase to fund these roads, the city has chosen an underhanded method to take more money from residents without going through the established political process to increase taxes,” Boyack said. “If city residents agree that taxes should be raised, fine — just do it the right way. That’s what today’s lawsuit demands.”

Scott Darrington, Pleasant Grove's city administrator, said Thursday that city officials hadn't yet been officially served the lawsuit, but declined to comment on the suit, citing pending litigation.

Pleasant Grove implemented the transportation fee — assessed on residents' utility bills, costing homeowners $8.45 a month — after city officials commissioned a study more than three years ago to determine how to repair and maintain city roads.

The study estimated it would take $3.8 million a year for the next 20 years to get all city roads up to an acceptable standard, according to city officials. But at the time, the city only had about $1.2 million a year made up of gas taxes and money transferred from the general fund.

By 2017, the City Council added another $230,000 of general fund money and the Utah Legislature increased the gas tax to add another $180,000 to the city, reducing the gap to $2.2 million.

In March last year, a group of residents filed a citizen initiative to fund the $2.2 million gap out of the general fund, but that fall the initiative failed after nearly 69 percent of voters shot it down.

"The election results showed the City Council that the residents did not want to fund roads by reducing or eliminating other general fund services," city officials say on Pleasant Grove's website.

So earlier this year, the City Council discussed implementing the transportation utility fee, and in February hosted several meetings to take input from the public and business leaders. In April, the council voted to implement the fee before making some changes to the ordinance in July. The fee began being collected Wednesday.

"Although much opposition was presented at the public hearings, the City Council was set on its course in passing a road fee despite it being the most legally tenuous option," Libertas' lawsuit states.

But Pleasant Grove isn't the only city in Utah that has assessed transportation utility fees.

Other cities that have similar fees include Provo, Vineyard, Mapleton and Highland in Utah County, as well as Kaysville, North Ogden, South Weber and Plain City, Weber County, in northern Utah.

Boyack said Libertas Institute has been studying the issue for about a year and was nearing the end of its research when Pleasant Grove began preparing to implement the fees, so based on "timing," he said that's why Libertas decided to target Pleasant Grove rather than cities that have already been collecting the fees.

"We felt rather than going after a city that has been doing this for a while, we wanted to set up a test case with a city that had not yet gotten started," Boyack said. "(Pleasant Grove) seemed like the proper defendant to take on this case, which of course, will have a broader application for other cities."

"Our intent is to win against Pleasant Grove and have legal precedent we can use to put other cities on notice and put a stop to the practice statewide," Boyack continued.

The lawsuit seeks remedies including a refund of money taken from residents and a declaration that the fee is illegal and must be discontinued.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Plain View in Weber County has a transportation utility fee in place. The name of the city is Plain City.