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West Valley City Journal

Emotions Surface as City Council Adopts Budget

Aug 30, 2016 03:29PM ● By Travis Barton

West Valley resident Troy Council speaks to the mayor and city council about the property tax increase on Aug. 8. The city council voted to adopt the 2016-2017 fiscal budget, which includes a nine percent property tax increase. —Travis Barton

Emotions bubbled to the surface during the West Valley City Council meeting on Aug. 9 as citizens opposed the property tax increase included in the city’s 2016-2017 fiscal budget. The city council voted 5-2 to adopt the new budget.
With the budget approved, property taxes are set to increase nine percent since last year. Citizens voiced their disapproval to the mayor and the city council at not only raising the taxes, but the steep increase it produced.
“I thought we were in charge, I thought you guys worked for us, but I guess that’s not the case,” resident Troy Council told the city council.
It’s the first time in five years the property taxes have been increased. City councilmembers were quick to point out this wasn’t an easy decision for them, but they felt it was the right one.
“It’s our pocketbooks that are just as affected as yours,” Councilwoman Karen Lang said during the meeting.
“Year round we have people come tell us they want better policing, better ordinance enforcement, better roads…we’re just trying to collect some money and take care of these issues,” Councilman Steve Buhler said.
Buhler said when the council votes to spend money on different items throughout the year to help the city, they are effectively voting to increase taxes.
“It’s two sides of the same coin, we can’t approve these things year round and say we’re going to ‘approve this money’ and ‘appropriate these funds’ and then not have the funds to do so,” Buhler said.
Citizens weren’t the only ones letting their emotions be heard as Mayor Ron Bigelow and Councilman Tom Huynh dissented in their vote.
“My own integrity is at stake here,” Bigelow said shortly before the vote was taken.
When Bigelow was in the Utah House of Representatives, he served as the House Chair of the Budget Committee preparing budgets for all of the state government. Before the vote was taken, Bigelow let his frustration be known since—considering his background—he was not allowed to assist with the budget preparations.
“I’ve been in elected office for over 18 years and I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been angry, and this is one of them,” Bigelow said after he had been regarded as “disingenuous.”
He said most of the city council told him not to participate in any discussion regarding the budget until “it was finalized and released to the public” because then the city council would have to look at it as well.
“I will guarantee you that I can put together a budget that will balance and be fair because I’ve done it before,” Bigelow said.
Budgets need long-term sustainability, Bigelow said a few days later, so long term plans need to be made.
“You can’t solve problems with the budget unless you do it consistently over time,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow also said the city needs to be prepared in the case of an economic downturn, something City Manager Wayne Pyle spoke about during the meeting. 
Bigelow, known for his opposition to tax increases, said during the meeting he would vote the way he campaigned he would.
“I said I will not raise taxes until—I leave it open—until I’m convinced personally that our government is spending all the money effectively and efficiently,” Bigelow said. 
Huynh said every city has problems, but raising property taxes shouldn’t always be the first resource to fix a city’s problems.
“Why don’t we try out other ways, we have to exhaust every possible way to take care of this matter,” Huynh said during the meeting.  
Bigelow said the budget isn’t bad except for the property tax increase.
“The only complaint I had was that we didn’t spend enough time exploring alternatives to raising taxes,” Bigelow said. “The things we’re funding, for the most part, are things that were critical and need to be addressed.”
Multiple citizens shared concerns as retirees living on fixed incomes with the tax increase set to hit them harder than others.
“Take into consideration us older citizens, I understand we need increases to cover costs, let’s make them reasonable,” resident Kathy Meyer told the city council.
Ed Blanchard, whose tax notice went up 34 percent, said it’s easy to sit down, crunch numbers and decide what to do, “but for those of us on fixed incomes, everything’s going up for us as well and we don’t have the luxury to tax other folks.”
John Sanders, a Chesterfield resident, said the council must have money to help out those with fixed incomes.
“Do the best you can do…help out the retirees,” Sanders told the city council.
Councilman Donald Christensen said he is on a fixed income. He said with property values increased, which are set by the county, his taxes went up as well. Christensen suggested those on fixed incomes can apply for property tax circuit breakers which provide tax refunds for low income families and individuals.
Through a series of questions to the city manager, Councilman Steve Buhler pointed out that the city council can’t make any changes to the sales tax nor can they target younger or richer families with the property tax increase.
That increase is set to bring in an additional $2.8 million. Of which $1.8 million will go to public safety for the police and fire departments.
Pyle spoke during the meeting regarding the process behind the budget and the alternatives they look at to raising property taxes such as pulling money from the general fund or cutting personnel recommendations which would eliminate public safety positions.
“We could still draw more from the fund balance…but we’ll have the same question next year. We’ll have the same needs—probably more needs—and it didn’t seem prudent to us to do that,” Pyle said during the city council meeting.
Pyle pointed out that the fire, police and parks and recreation departments have been understaffed for years. By cutting personnel those staff recommended positions wouldn’t be filled and existing positions would be under threat.
“Sixty-five percent goes to personnel costs, in order for services to be maintained, you need that personnel,” Jim Welch, finance director, said.
Jeff White, a resident whose car has been stolen three times, said he understands the city offers necessary services but it isn’t everything.
“I love services but a city is not services. A city is families and individuals, a city is people,” White said.  
White said he thought government cuts should be made rather than taxing the people.
Resident Mike Markham said as a small business owner he could understand the reasoning behind the tax increase despite his property tax going up $44.58 a year. He said he’s happy to see public works resurfacing a road that needs fixing.
“I can see what I’m getting from this city, I can see the street repairs,” Markham said to the city council. “I complain about a lot of things, but I support this.”