Local governments all around are facing some tough times and Salt Lake County is no different. The county had to make some deep cuts, over 17%, to make ends meet. Certainly lean times lead to creative solutions, but I’m not so sure about the way that the Unified Police Department has chosen to go about it.
As you may have read, the UPD has decided to implement a fee for police service to be collected once a quarter. This fee is about $174 per year. That in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal to me. What is a big deal is the manner in which this fee is being collected and the manner in which the county is trying to spin it. Call it a fee, a surcharge, or whatever you want, it’s still a tax.
What’s particularly laughable is that this fee is being billed as somehow much more transparent than an annual property tax statement. On the contrary, it’s even less so. My property tax statement contains line items for each service that I am receiving. I can, at a glance, figure out how much I pay for fire, library, and even garbage service. If the increase cost of policing were, instead, listed as a line item on my property tax bill, I would still know exactly what I’m paying for police service. By keeping it on a separate statement, however, I now have to start adding up various bills to figure out just how much my local government costs. Making a taxpayer do more work to figure out what they are paying and what it is for is less transparency, not more.
It’s also a non-argument that using fees instead of taxes gives the county more flexibility. If the county can’t implement flexible taxation based on residence type or the number of employees at a business, then it’s time to ask the legislature to make changes to the law. I agree in principle that businesses that create higher police costs should bear a higher portion of the burden. (You may also notice that apartments are charged more than homeowners, a tacit admission that single-dwelling units cause less crime.) It’s also a good thing to have non-profits contributing at least something to the costs of running the county. Just don’t use fees as a end-run around legislative roadblocks. That kind of behavior doesn’t solve the problem and, more often than not, incurs the wrath of the legislature with retaliatory new laws.