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Front Page » October 31, 2006 » Opinion » Different shades of gray
Published 3,228 days ago

Different shades of gray

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Sun Advocate Columnist

Each month the Sun Advocate presents two views of the same subject as columnists Terry Willis and Tom McCourt see it.

Zap the ZAP tax

It is called the ZAP tax, an acronym meaning zoos, arts, and parks. Salt Lake County passed it in 1996 and it generates about $15 million for them every year. The money is used to fund the Utah Symphony, Hogle Zoo, parks, and other recreation projects. Citizens of Salt Lake County like the tax, and a recent poll suggested that more than 70 percent of them would vote to keep it.

The ZAP tax is an extension of the sales tax. An additional one-tenth of one percent is added to every tax dollar levied. Originally, the tax was proposed to help the Utah Symphony and Opera, organizations that were traditionally self-sustaining or funded through donations. In the early 1990s, the symphony was in big trouble and public funding was seen as the only way to save it from extinction.

The first attempts to pass an arts tax failed. Most people don't attend the opera or the symphony, and they saw the tax as a donation to rich, elitist organizations. And so, politicians came up with the idea of ZAP - zoos, arts, and parks. Joe Citizen could relate to zoos and parks, and the tax was finally passed. Today, the symphony gets 57.5 percent of the revenues generated, 30 percent goes to parks, and 12.5 percent to zoos.

This is important information for Price City residents because the city will have a ZAP tax proposal on the ballot this year. Here too, the proposal is for an additional one-tenth of one percent added to the sales tax collected in Price City. It doesn't sound like much. A person who spends $20 thousand in town will surrender an additional twenty bucks in taxes to fund ZAP.

The city council expects the new ZAP tax to generate about $220 thousand per year. They want to use 82 percent of the funds to support the swimming pool, 13.5 percent for city parks, and 4.5 percent for "other" projects. City fathers say the only alternative is to raise city property taxes by a whopping 33 percent (sounds high to me).

As usual, I have a few humble observations to make. First of all, this is primarily a swimming pool tax. Zoos, arts, and parks (ZAP) hardly apply. We don't have a zoo, and there are no arts projects listed as beneficiaries of the funds. A more realistic name might be to call it a SPAM (Swimming Pool Annual Maintenance) tax.

The city has funded the swimming pool for many years from general revenues and user fees. If we pass a special sales tax to help fund the swimming pool, why can't we pass another ZAP tax to help fund city streets and city water works? Carry this to its logical conclusion and there is no reason not to have additional special taxes to help fund the city library, maintenance of municipal buildings, fire and police departments, and everything else already being funded through general revenues. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, people in Price City might like the tax because through it they can make everyone who buys a donut in the city limits help pay the cost of maintaining the swimming pool. It's a way to dodge a property tax increase and put some of the burden on other residents of the county who have already had their property taxes raised in recent years.

It is true that the whole county uses the Price swimming pool and parks. But entrance to the pool has never been free. We pay to use it. Wouldn't an increase in user fees be more reasonable than a general sales tax increase? And, if the city pool is showing a one-year shortfall of $460,000 as the city claims, maybe it's time to cut back on pool amenities (wave action, dome cover, wintertime use - heated water) or shut it down and do something else with the money spent to keep it open.

These possibilities too, are endless.

Vote yes on the ZAP tax

Do not let the name get in the way of a good thing. I know we don't have any zoos here, nor are we looking to get one. But the ZAP tax is an avenue that the state legislature gave communities to help fund quality of life services in their communities. It cannot be used to fund roads, pay raises or other city costs. But when the city has a way to help defray the costs of the parks and pool, it does leave a bit more money in the budget to fix that pothole that develops on your street.

There are many ways to raise enough money to pay for parks, pools and other recreational and arts facilities. The most direct way is a user fee. The swimming pool has a user fee, but due to rising costs of many things, there is no way to have a community pool and operate it strictly on user fees. If you bump up the cost too much, user fees will drop as people can no longer afford to use it.

The pool has been working hard to increase revenue by offering many programs to entice a broad spectrum of our community to use it. There are probably a few more ways to help cut the shortfall, but our pool is a unique asset to our community and the majority of people would agree.

Property tax is another avenue to go. To raise the equivalent revenue the ZAP tax is expected to generate, they say my property taxes would go up 33 percent. Now we could deal with the raise, but it would mean cutting down somewhere else in our budget. Many of our seniors and lower income home owners do not have that much extra to spare. And if you think renters would be exempt, think again. Area rents would go up to cover the additional costs to the landlords. They would have to come up with the increases in chunks of $50 to $100 a month instead of pennies here and there.

The ZAP tax is the broadest way to help support our desire to have the parks, pool and amenities we have. Many sales dollars in our county come from visitors passing through our area. It is nice to let them share the costs of maintaining our facilities. In the summer I drive by the park almost daily and see people from out of the area stopped to take a break and eat at our facilities.

The community has shown a desire to upgrade our current level of recreation opportunities. The overwhelming commitment at the Dino-Mine Parks demonstrates that. Trails, pools, parks and arts contribute to the quality of life in our community. It is what attracts new business and people into helping our community grow.

High property taxes or boarded up pools and dilapidated parks are a turnoff for visitors, community and prospective businesses alike. The cost of maintaining all of the facilities continue to rise as the price of gas, electricity and material used in maintenance skyrocket. Everyone in the county has access to all the facilities.

Price City continues to try and cut its bottom line with reduction of its staff through attrition. They have reduced their vehicle fleet by almost half. We demand the same level of service and as far as I can tell we have continued to get it. By pursuing the broadest tax base to try and raise revenue, the city is attempting to keep the costs in line for everyone.

I have no problem paying a bit more for the swimming pool, but I will use it much more if the cost stays in line with the experience. Our seniors will continue to be able to use the pool as a form of exercise in the morning if we keep the costs down. Many need the sloping entrance that the wave pool side of the facility offers in order to get into the water. The school will be able to have a swim and dive team if the pool is covered and heated during the winter.

Our community can continue to look forward and know we have to find a way to fund our quality of life in the best way possible or we can stick our heads in the sand while the community struggles to maintain itself.

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October 31, 2006
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