It is time again for municipal elections in American Fork, and although we didn’t have a primary, both the mayoral and city candidate races are contested. The three top issues, according to residents, are growth, taxes, and code enforcement.
For mayor we have two candidates, Tim Holley and current mayor Brad Frost. We also have three city council candidates, incumbents Staci Carroll and Ryan Hunter, along with challenger Carissa George. Candidates appear here in the order they were interviewed.
This infographic very nearly speaks for itself. But a few notes, if you please.
One candidate is out there saying that our property tax rates just keep going up, year after year. This is not the case.
It’s true that someone’s property taxes can go up even if the City’s property tax rate goes down — if the assessed value of the property increases, or if another taxing entity, such as the Alpine School District, increases its rate.
The calculation for primary (first) residences is: multiply the rate by the assessed value of the property, then discount 45 percent. That’s the annual tax on that property.
Here’s your extra credit for the day. Some candidates can’t explain this, but maybe that’s okay, because it’s a little messed up.
The City’s certified tax rate (CTR) is set according to state law. A given year’s rate is the answer to this question: Looking at the same set of properties that was taxed last year, what rate will bring in the same number of dollars (perversely, not adjusted for inflation) as last year, given current valuations?
If the City lowers that rate, it’s a tax cut. If they raise that rate, it’s a tax increase, with special requirements for public notice and such. This is true even if the “increase” produces a rate lower than last year’s, or vice versa. So we sometimes see “increases” in which this year’s rate is lower than last year’s, and we occasionally see “tax cuts” in which the resulting rate is higher than last year’s.
The Utah Legislature calls this “Truth in Taxation,” and yes, it can be Orwellian. The long-term effect in practice is to starve municipal governments of funds, because to raise the rate even slightly, just enough to keep revenues equal in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars — and even if the rate ends up lower than last year’s — is a “tax increase.” And we all know tax increases, real or imagined, are dicey politics for incumbents.
Based on what I’ve heard from the legislation’s authors, this slow strangulation was an intended consequence. It’s clever, and it’s destructive.
Speaking of politics, why do you suppose a challenger running for City office would misreport the facts, saying repeatedly that our property tax rates have increased, when they clearly haven’t?
Want to make a difference? Share this. Before Tuesday. Help others learn before they vote.
Suppose you’re a University of Utah football fan (as I am, when they aren’t playing BYU, and I’m sad about the USC thing last week). But your grandfather is a died-in-the wool Cougar. You know the type. In his mind, it is a holy war, and you don’t remember the last time he was willing to concede that the Utes made a good play or got a good win. When the Utes beat the Cougars, as often happens, he blames the referees. If he cannot find the slightest cause to blame them for enforcing the rules unevenly or ignoring the rules when it’s to Utah’s advantage, he complains that the rules themselves are stupid and skewed, and blames the refs for enforcing bad rules.
Suppose that in a small fit of hubris and wrath, he said to you, “If the Utes are ever ranked first in the polls, I’ll give you $25,000.”
Fortunately, his eyesight is failing. So when the Utes were ranked #4 the other week, you dropped by (as you often do, because you’re a good, devoted grandchild). This time, you said, “Grandpa, I’m going to read to you from the college football poll in order, as usual. By the way, BYU got a few votes, but didn’t make the top 25. As always, I’ll start with the last of the ten on my list and work up, because I know you like the suspense.”
Conveniently — and so you couldn’t accused of lying — you had typed up a list with ten teams in order, starting with Utah at #4. You left off the top three, but you were careful to get the next ten in the right order, because accuracy matters. You started reading at the bottom, as you said, and you didn’t give their numerical rankings. You left him thinking that Utah was ranked #1.
“I guess I’d better write you a check,” he said, because his eyes are failing, but his memory’s fine. “Better yet, you write the check, and I’ll sign it.”
You would never try to put the wrong amount on the check — say, $125,000 — even though he’ll never notice. After all, you balance his checkbook too, and there’s plenty of money in his accounts. You could probably get away with it — and if he caught you, you could say it was a mistake, and he’d likely believe you. But you would never do any of that. It would be immoral. It would be criminal.
Come to think of it, you would never deceive Grandpa with bad data, so he’d give you $25,000 on a false pretense. Not only would that also be a felony. It would be piling a sin on top of a sin. (The one on the bottom is loving money so much you’re willing to deceive people to get more of it.)
Here’s my question. If you wouldn’t do any of those things, why in the world would you publish a flier with a graphic showing that American Fork has the highest property tax rate among Utah County cities, when three cities have higher rates?
You could protest that all the numbers you put in the graph are true. And you could point out that the graph would be unreadably crowded if it showed all 25 Utah cities. So you had to leave them out. And you could protest that you never actually said that American Fork’s rate was the highest. And all of that would be true.
Do you really expect me to believe that you left out all the cities with higher tax rates just for the sake of readability? It looks like you’re trying to fool the voters, tricking them with partial truths so they’ll give you political power. (I’m sure it’s for their own good.)
You might argue, even if you did skew the visual results, the higher point you’re making is God’s Honest Truth: our taxes are too high. So that justifies taking some liberties with your graphics.
So I guess I have two more questions.
First, if it’s God’s Honest Truth, why do you have to deceive people so they’ll agree with you?
Second, would you ever trust someone like you with political power, control over tens of millions of dollars of tax revenues, and your freedom?
So You’re Not Really One of Those People
Gentle reader, I assume you’re not one them. So what can you do to help? Post the graphic below (or this one) on Facebook or somewhere, or e-mail it to your friends and neighbors. Talk to your friends, in person and on social media. Tell them what you know. Some of them will listen. And if you want the raw data, it’s here at Utah.gov: 2015 Utah Tax Areas with Tax Rates.
Here’s a link to audio of a few questions and candidate responses at last Wednesday evening’s meet-the-candidate event at American Fork Library: These questions were submitted in advance via the Internet.
What would you cut in the current budget to increase road funding? (Order: Barnes – Simpson – Frost – Shelton.)
What will you do to help fix our neglected streets and sidewalks, especially in the older part of the city? (Order: Simpson – Frost – Shelton – Barnes.)
Lehi is doing a great job of attracting major new businesses. How can American Fork do better? (Order: Shelton – Barnes – Simpson – Frost)
Each candidate had one minute for each response. Note the response order above with each question, because candidates aren’t named before every response.
Candidate Kevin Barnes after the October 21, 2015, meet-the-candidates event at American Fork High School.
Kevin Barnes hasn’t studied the budget enough to know where there are cuts big enough to make a difference. He’s heard a lot of opinions, but the numbers are too small to make an impact. He spoke of living together in a community and reaching a consensus as to spending. We have to keep maintaining the roads, but also everything else the City has to do — police, fire, water, sewer. Other cities think they have the worst roads, too. American Fork is attracting the right kind of businesses.
Allen Simpson talked in general terms about the budget process but declined to identify specific cuts. We’re going to have to spend some money we haven’t spent yet on roads. Maintaining roads properly reduces long-term costs. We have to decide how much money we’re willing to spend on them (but he offered no opinion of his own). A resident recently told him that her son discovered that everyday purchases are a little more expensive in American Fork than in other communities.
Brad Frost said he wouldn’t cut anything, “because I would have already.” He said the council’s priority has been infrastructure — roads and the utilities under them. He said the 2013 road bond vote gave the City clear direction not to borrow for roads, but to pay as we go. That will take a lot of patience, including with such things as maintaining major streets and not rebuilding cul-de-sacs. The City used property it already owned to expand the cemetery, rather than buying property. 300 jobs are coming at an oil company at the south end; CVS is coming. American Fork has a great model for economic growth and a great location.
Rob Shelton said he’d cut the City’s phone bill in half. Some employees have the City paying for both a land line and a cell phone for them. The City’s phone system is antiquated. Also, accepting credit card payments without charging a convenience fee to defray credit card processing fees costs the City over $80,000 per year in convenience fees. We need to decide if that’s worth the price. He identified some road projects the CIty has done itself, more cheaply, instead of using contractors. He’s very analytical and likes to roll up his sleeves. He listed some businesses that were looking at leaving American Fork to expand, but decided to stay, and noted that businesses are moving from Lehi to American Fork, because American Fork has planned better for growth and has grown more slowly. “I think we’re very competitive with Lehi.”
In my one-on-one interviews I asked members of the American Fork City Council what concerns they hear from residents. Interviews take different directions, but I also asked most of them, “If your term ended tomorrow, what have you done or accomplished of which you’re proudest?” In some cases, they disclaimed any personal credit and described […]
David, thank you for another stellar round of posts. I really appreciate and enjoy your reporting and insights. Looking forward…
I like Mike! A good man, doing good things and if it ain’t boke, don’t change the Sheriff. He has…
You're welcome! Glad it helped.
Thank you for posting the audio in easy, well-organized formats for me to catch up on and educate myself about…
You're welcome! Thanks for your kind words and for adding your own view.