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Salt Lake County Council scrutinizes water districts over proposed property tax hikes

Posted at 5:01 PM, Jul 19, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Utah's biggest water districts are proposing small property tax increases as they deal with growth and ensuring a safe, clean water supply.

On Tuesday, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District informed the Salt Lake County Council it was proposing a property tax increase.

"It's an $8.90 increase on an average residential property," the district's board chair, Corey Rushton, told council members.

The district justified it as necessary, having built a new water treatment plant in Herriman where new neighborhoods are already popping up and ongoing needs for the water system.

"We do our job best when you turn the water on and it’s there and it’s clean," Rushton told FOX 13 News afterward. "So this keeps the water flowing but it also has an eye towards the future."

But council members pushed back with questions about conservation and how the water district spends the money it already has. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District went before the council last week with its own proposed property tax increase (roughly $3.78) and some council members argue that water districts have raised taxes steadily over the years.

"There are obviously concerns when entities want to raise taxes year over year," Salt Lake County Council Chair Aimee Winder Newton told FOX 13 News.

At Tuesday's meeting, council members pressed Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District over getting water into the Great Salt Lake and whether they ought to lean more into a "user fee" for high water users to force conservation instead of property taxes, which covers the bulk of water use.

"I just struggle with increasing property taxes at a time when so many Salt Lake County residents are struggling with cost of living and we know some of the highest water users are paying the cheapest rates in the nation," Council member Suzanne Harrison said.

Rushton acknowledged no one likes a property tax increase, but they were working to ensure water remains affordable while also funding critical projects to ensure a safe water supply.

Council member Laurie Stringham pushed the district to look closely at how it bonds and budgets.

"You do have a bit of a slush fund to fall back on. I have some concerns over that and I'm not sure that we’re doing the best we can for the people when we don’t look at how we fund things," she said.

The council isn't the only group to criticize water districts and their proposed tax increases. The Utah Taxpayers Association has criticized year over year tax increases by some districts and urged the state legislature to adopt more of a "user fee" system to force water conservation. So has the environmental group Utah Rivers Council, which spoke about it at Tuesday's meeting.

"I know we all care about the Great Salt Lake. We all want to see Great Salt Lake levels rise," said Zachary Frankel, the Utah Rivers Council's executive director. "That means we need to make sure the price of water sends a message to consumers — not just homeowners — all kinds of consumers, to use less water."

Both water districts will hold "truth-in-taxation" hearings where they discuss the proposed increase and take public comment on it. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District has scheduled its hearing for August 21 in Orem; the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District will hold its truth-in-taxation hearing on August 9 at its offices in West Jordan.

The tax increases come at a time when 76 other cities, counties, school districts and other government entities across Utah are proposing property tax increases as they seek to cover costs and deal with infrastructure demands. Rushton told FOX 13 News that they want to keep water rates affordable, while also ensuring funding for infrastructure.

"I think for the most part, people understand the importance and value of water," he said. "I think we get more of the comments of 'Yes, you should charge us more' than 'You charge us too much.' I think that with our balanced approach of not trying to do too large of increase per year has served us well."

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.