OREM -- Orem residents have spoken, with more than 5,400 of them signing a petition to force a property tax referendum to be on the ballot in November 2013. The referendum will be on the ballot if organizers get 3,129 valid signatures.
The Utah County Elections Office has gone through the signatures to make sure at least 3,129 are registered voters and Orem residents. On Thursday county officials, who had been counting as signature packets came in, validated the final names and delivered petition packets back to the city. City recorder Donna Weaver, who will announce the official count, is out of the office until Monday.
If the referendum is on the ballot, Orem will have to freeze the proposed 25 percent property tax increase for two budget cycles. That will necessitate digging deeper into already slim city coffers to find $3.3 million to cover a $2.8 million obligation on Orem's part of UTOPIA's bond payment and other needs in the city. They also will have to make more cuts in 2013.
Since late spring residents have been sounding their concerns about two issues: mismanagement of city funds and the financial burden of UTOPIA, an interlocal agreement that provides Orem and partner cities with a fiber-optic network. Residents have been vocal in their dislike of UTOPIA and the tax increase. They started collecting signatures shortly after the city council approved the tax increase in August.
Although the question will not go to a vote until next year, state law requires that any tax increase subject to a referendum is frozen until after the referendum.
While the referendum will provide a symbolic vote on UTOPIA, according to a press release issued by the advocacy group Standing for Orem, it will "demand the city council take responsibility for this financial disaster."
More that 147 residents carried petitions door to door.
"People poured out their hearts and put their names on a list to help," Cathy Young said. "The city still isn't listening to us."
City officials say it's not that easy. The city has been dipping into reserve funds through the lean years and no longer has that option. To balance the budget without a tax increase, services will have to be cut.
"We have a level of service that's made it one of the best places in the country to live," assistant city manager Jamie Davidson said. "It's the best because of the services and the committed employees and innovative public officials. I'm concerned we won't be able to look like this in the future."
They are looking at places to cut but won't take action until after the signature count is official.
"Going forward with a plan would be premature before we know that outcome has been reached," Davidson said.
While residents and city administration appear to be at loggerheads with each other, neither side wants services to be cut or jobs to be lost. The departments more likely to take a hit are those like the library, parks and recreation and snow removal.
A flier sent out by those opposing the referendum listed possible effects of no tax increase: 10 percent of the city's employees could lose their jobs; fire education and prevention programs for elementary schools could be eliminated; Summerfest, the city's annual event, could be eliminated; library hours could be cut and programs eliminated; senior center programs could be significantly reduced; and a number of other city-sponsored programs could be reduced or eliminated.
Standing for Orem representatives isn't convinced that jobs and services need to be slashed. Their suggestions include:
• Cutting the mall subsidy of $975,000;
• Reducing convention travel and city food purchases by $200,000;
• Delaying purchase of half of the new computer equipment, saving $200,000;
• Cutting organization dues and CEDO, approximately $315,000;
• Requiring employees who make more than $75,000 to pay $250 a month for insurance for a savings of $800,000, or $350 per month for a savings of $1 million.
More than that, they hope the city will work with them instead of shutting them out of the process.
"Instead of fighting this, embrace it," resident Dave Young said. "The city keeps working at dividing citizens from police and fire. We don't want this. It's the last thing we want. The issue is this: the citizens what to be heard."
Dorothy Burr said in taking the petitions around she has seen residents become engaged in the community. "I feel like it's unified the city. But is also seems like the city employees are up in arms."
For Davidson and department heads, the frustration comes from the fact they have been operating on slim budgets for several years already and have not be able to take care of things that need to be taken care of.
"At the end of the day we still have the responsibility to take care of the public," Davidson said. "When someone calls 911 we still have the responsibility to respond."
Burr said the city is using scare tactics.
"We feel it irresponsible for the city to threaten the jobs of our police and fire departments as safety is one of the main responsibilities of the City of Orem to its citizens. These efforts to scare the public and discourage citizens from participating in how they will be governed is beneath the values of a representative government. Instead of threatening our safety they should consider making responsible budget-balancing reductions and policy changes first."