SANDY — Another Utah community is considering a property tax hike to pay for police and firefighters — and in this case, it's likely to win approval.
Sandy has already tentatively approved a budget that contemplates a roughly 34% property tax hike to pay for five new police officers and seven new firefighters. The tax hike faces one last hurdle before it receives final approval: a truth-in-taxation hearing expected for mid-August.
Faced with what city officials describe as understaffed police and fire departments, Sandy joined a slew of other cities or organizations this year seeking to improve retention of police and firefighters across the Wasatch Front.
Sandy's efforts began last year, using an additional $1.6 million to pay for police and fire pay raises after city leaders confronted what they called a long-standing pay inequity for first responders that had Sandy among the least-competitive police agencies along the Wasatch Front.
This year, Sandy is seeking to raise property taxes to help strengthen the city's police and fire departments, which Councilman Zach Robinson — the councilman who has led the charge for the property tax hike — called "significantly understaffed."
"We've had to shut down ambulances," Robinson told the Deseret News on Monday, explaining that because of a shortage of firefighters, who double as EMTs, there have been days when only firetrucks respond to medical emergencies. "That's not a good way to keep our citizens protected."
Sandy joins Salt Lake City, which raised sales taxes last year to pay for more police officers, along with several other city initiatives. This year, Salt Lake City approved substantial pay raises for employees and, specifically, police officers to keep the city's salaries competitive, after Salt Lake police rallied for bigger pay increases this year.
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood also proposed a 31 percent property tax hike to help increase police and firefighter pay, but the South Salt Lake City Council narrowly voted to dodge the tax hike, approving a smaller pay raise. The mayor weighed a veto but ultimately decided against, continuing the issue to next year's budget cycle.
Unified Police Department also raised fees on its contracted service, requiring its member cities in Salt Lake County to pay more to pay for police raises.
The Sandy City Council received the brunt of mixed reaction to the property tax hike before it voted to tentatively approve it during a meeting last month. Some residents urged the City Council to use the tax to right-size its police department, while others were appalled the city would consider a 34% tax hike.
"It's not something everybody wants to do," Robinson said. "I know it's been very difficult for me. I've not enjoyed this process one bit, but it's the right thing to do for our community at this time."
The tentative budget, approved by a 4-3 vote, includes a tax hike estimated at about $5.57 per month, or about $66.84 a year, on a home valued at $350,000, according to city officials. But it would also include the elimination of the city's street lighting fee of $2.98 a month, or about $35.76 a year, bringing the impact of the tax hike down to about $31.08 a year for a home of that value.
The new tax revenue would pay for salaries, benefits, training and equipment for five new police officers and seven new firefighter/paramedics, as well as one new snowplow and street service worker and one new parks and recreation position focused on servicing Sandy trails.
One woman, who did not provide her name to the City Council but said in last month's meeting she had lived in Sandy for about 30 years, said she was "blown away" the council would consider a 34% tax hike.
"If you can't balance your budget on like a 10% increase or less, then what are you doing here?" she said.
But another Sandy resident, substitute teacher Kathy Spicket, said she supported the tax hike.
"I'm sorry, but when I'm huddled under that desk for a lockdown with 24 kids … I want to know that there's adequate fire department and police department to come," she said. "When I've got a child on a defibrillator in a class that I'm in that day and we have no school nurse, I want to know that a fire station is staffed. (It's) better that we take steps to adequately fund things than regret it later."
The proposed tax hike was met with mixed reaction, not only from residents but also from council members.
Councilman Chris McCandless quoted Winston Churchill, who said a nation trying to "tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket of water and trying to lift himself up by the handle."
McCandless said the tax hike would mark a "monumental shift from former practices that have worked so well for decades," and he called it "unprecedented, dangerous and unwarranted."
"I will not vote for any budget that makes me pretend that we are doing better because we stepped into a bucket with a handle," McCandless said.
But Robinson said he and other council members view the tax hike as a way to right a city that has not kept up with inflation and has instead used fees that don't require truth-in-taxation hearings to keep up with costs.
"We haven't kept up at all," Robinson said, adding that the "financial health" of Sandy will likely be an ongoing conversation into future years and could give way to other tax hikes in the future. "It's miserable, but I think as policymakers … that is a conversation we should have every year."
The tax hike comes after city leaders cut about $1.3 million from the budget to slim it down.
Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn has been supportive of the proposed tax hike. In a council meeting early on in the budget season, Bradburn called himself perhaps "the first Republican to go on record supporting a tax increase, but I don’t have any money left to operate your city, so we could desperately use it."