OREM-- After eight hours of a public hearing, the Orem City Council voted 4-3 to approve a compromise property tax increase of $1.7 million or nearly half of the proposed $3.345 million increase. The city will have to make up the remainder of the $3.3 million shortfall through cuts in budgeted service vehicles, a one time take from the city's reserves, and no employee raises.
The $3.3 million proposed city property tax increase included $3 million for UTOPIA payments. There is $2.8 million due this year and a 2 percent increase each year until 2040. The extra $200,000 would help cover those 2 percent increases.
The property tax compromise was not easy to reach. Several motions were put on the table but could never get a majority vote. The nays to the compromise came from Councilwomen Karen McCandless and Mary Street and Councilman Hans Anderson. However, Anderson's vote was an adamant no for any taxes, whereas the others were seeking more compensation for city employees.
After several attempts, Councilwoman Margaret Black agreed to the end compromise suggested by Mayor Jim Evans, but with very mixed feelings on how and where staff would cut.
In her comments to residents, many of who remained through the entire meeting, Black said, "You come here tonight and think we fly by the seat of our pants as a council. We don't want to overcharge our residents but we have to pay the debts."
She added, referring to a line from a church hymn, she said she tells herself to "do what is right let the consequence follow."
Robo calls from the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Taxpayers Association and other official notices brought Orem residents out by the hundreds to listen to and speak out about the increase proposal.
Ten years ago UTOPIA promised low-cost, high-speed Internet access to residents of its 16 partner cities but only 38 percent of Orem residents now have access to the service, and the network is deep in debt, unable to pay even the interest on its bonds. On top of that, a recently completed legislative audit of UTOPIA showed mismanagement and that the network is currently valued at negative $120 million.
As Tuesday night progressed everything from petitions for a ballot referendum to pizza were being passed around the chambers and into the lobby. Fliers for new organizations to change city government and how you can help city government were also circulated. Most of those attending were against UTOPIA, but a few business owners stood up for the faster speeds of the fiber-optic network and hoped the council could come up with a way to make services come online faster.
"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Duane Johanson, owner of Duane's Auto Wrecking on Geneva Road. He and his wife Alice stood up for the business owners who they felt hadn't been able to get their voice in the "no new taxes" choir.
"Our portion of the property tax will be $1,500. This is hurting the businesses that are collecting the sales tax. We can't retire because of the new property taxes," Alice Johanson said.
Prior to the hearing Mayor Jim Evans indicated he expected it to be a long evening and that residents could see some changes to the original property tax proposal as the council decides where cuts could be made. However, he said, "I'm not ready to let the park lawns go brown."
At the meeting Councilwoman Karen McCandless told residents the proposed property tax increase does not include employee raises as was originally proposed. There will not be across-the-board raises but in some cases a 2 percent merit raise will be given with the funds coming from another source.
Evans noted that since the budget hearings in late June he had been hearing mostly from the business community where the property tax would be felt the greater. "I've heard more from the business community than any other. It will mean increases to their taxes."
Many of those stepping up to the microphone at Tuesday's truth in taxation hearing were the same people who have been at the other hearings and open houses. However, many older people on fixed incomes say they found the courage to go and be heard.
"I am representing 40 to 50 taxpayers by the University Mall. This is not a good time to raise taxes," said retiree Gary Bascom. "We've obligated our city. If this isn't successful we'll have to bail them out again."
Voices from the audience could be heard calling for a liquidation of UTOPIA.
Orem resident Bonnie Coombs said, "You've made a deal with the Devil. When government runs lean they have to get smart. Orem runs best when it runs lean."
Several ideas were offered to the council on how to fix the problem, but mostly residents were asking the council to lead and make the right decision. Many asked for private enterprise to take over.
"We're putting the city on notice," said resident Dick Brunst. "We won't allow our own personal pocketbooks to be this way. You're wired to waste." Brunst announced his official candidacy for mayor in 2013.
UTOPIA is not the only subject on the tax increase list. There is also a great need for new emergency vehicles, cost of living increases in some utilities, the need for more high-tech equipment in the city offices, and more.
Many residents brought up old and continuing issues such as the continual maintenance costs on the Center For Story, the underground parking debacle at Midtown Village and other financial missteps.
The one promise city council members did get from many of those attending is that they will remember how they voted come the next election.
"It's clear you have a mandate," one resident said. "Your constituents will be behind you if you vote no."
Councilman Brent Sumner noted that typically his wife will send him off to council meeting with a kiss and say stay focused. "Tonight she gave me a kiss and said it sucks to be you."