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South Jordan Journal

Report says South Jordan has seventh highest cost of government in state, but what does that mean?

Sep 30, 2019 04:09PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

The news sounds shocking: According to the Utah Taxpayers Association’s “2019 Cost of City Governments” report, South Jordan has the seventh-highest cost of government of the largest cities in the state.

The link to an article is posted on a SoJo Facebook group.

As tends to happen with social media, buzz gets buzzing.

The question is: What does that mean? And is that a bad thing for South Jordan?

The facts from Utah Taxpayers Association

The Utah Taxpayers Association, now calling itself “Your Taxpayers Association” or “Your Tax Watchdog” is a venerable institution. The organization has been in existence since 1922, and is an oft-cited source for media.

The annual Cost of City Governments report is always based on the previous fiscal year’s data. So, this year’s report comprises facts from 2018 data.

UTA’s simple description for the report is “A snapshot of on average how much of each thousand dollars earned by a citizen is consumed by the city government in Utah.”

For its report, UTA then proceeds to compare the “highest-cost” versus the “lowest-cost” governments. The point of view expressed is that cities should avoid providing services for residents, abdicating the responsibility for private-sector solutions. 

“It is a general snapshot so that people can understand the fees and taxes they are paying,” UTA Research Analyst Spencer Nitz told the South Jordan Journal in a telephone interview.

Nitz pointed out that, of the 50 largest cities in the state, SoJo government receives the fifth-highest revenue for government expenditures and fees. “They have an extraordinarily high budget,” Nitz said, reminding once again, however, that the report itself only looks at revenues being levied in terms of taxes and fees.

UTA leverages population and tax/fee data from the US Census Bureau and Government Revenue Data from the Utah State Auditor’s Office.

The SoJo POV—Local governments make decisions to suit their local constituents

South Jordan administrative and financial management executives do not quibble with any of the data from the report.

Taxes, they assert, are quite logically, often higher in providing a level of service desired by a community. 

SoJo City Manager Gary Whatcott uses the example of park strip maintenance. “It’s a question we ask the (city) council every time—how often do you want the grass to be mown?”

Another common issue is how long does a community want to wait before getting a response to a call about a fire? 

Or, how long does a community want wait for a police officer or other first-responder to arrive at a location about a safety issue?

The level of service – whether grass is tended once a week or once a month, or whether first responders arrive in 60 seconds or 10 minutes—has an impact on residents’ level of satisfaction but also has an impact on the corollary—how much taxes residents pay to receive that level of service.

“Spending,” said SoJo City Manager Gary Whatcott, “is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’—it is what a community decides.”

It’s all about the data

For the past 11 years, SoJo officials have surveyed residents to find out what they want from local government. For the past five years, as reported by the South Jordan Journal in April, the city has worked with public-opinion polling organization Y2 Analytics and has broadly publicized strong, mostly positive public opinion about the level of service the city is providing.

“What our residents comment about means more to me [than the UTA comparison report],” Whatcott said.

Whatcott says the city uses priority-based budgeting concepts. Such a strategy leverages the data from the surveys to inform a prioritization technology program, which guides how budget dollars are spent.

While Whatcott indicates SoJo initiated the program during recessionary times, the conservatively managed city has found the strategy to be useful in both lean and plentiful times.

The SoJo values octagon—the eight strategic priorities for the city—help guide spending, he said. The eight categories comprise: balanced regulation, civic development, community engagement, economic development, fiscal responsibility, open-space and “desirable” amenities, safety, sustainable growth.

Whatcott says these values help frame spending decisions. “If programs don’t fit in these categories—or accomplish these goals,” he said, “we should ask ‘why are we paying for it?’”

It’s really all about the local community

With regards to the Utah Taxpayers Association’s recent report finding SoJo being the seventh-highest-taxing city, UTA’s Nitz reminds: “What we try to do is look at this as a snapshot,” Nitz said. “It is virtually impossible to compare city by city.”

Impossible, and even desirable or overly useful?

SoJo Chief Financial Officer Sunil Naidu notes that taxation is “not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.”

Colleague Don Tingey, the strategic services director for the city, agrees. “It goes back to why cities are formed, to begin with—unique city values that the residents want to preserve,” he said. Without the concept of localized values, Tingey argues, “[we would be] just one big city.”

South Jordan, according to Whatcott and these other staff members, prioritizes running the government with well-informed elected officials. Providing them with the best information possible then allows them to make the best decisions possible to represent constituents.

“Most officials are sensitive to their constituents,” Whatcott said.

Whatcott shares some of the city’s most controversial budgetary decisions—matters such as the development proposal to “trade one amenity for another” by axing the Mulligan’s family fun center and developing land for an entertainment complex that could have housed what is now Sandy City’s Hale Center Theatre.

“The public came out and said ‘No’—In fact, they said ‘Hell, no,’” Whatcott said. “We don’t want you to get rid of Mulligan’s. We like the look of green space.”

As a result of this profound constituent outpouring, Whatcott said, the city scrapped the lure of development and is now reinvesting in Mulligans and continues to tout its commitment to open space.

In a somewhat similar situation, the city also had appreciable resident input on the fate of the Glenmoor Golf Course, which now is being preserved in perpetuity, without the possibility of development encroaching on the decades-old green-space. Today, the course is privately owned and operated and is a thriving national model of success, a win-win for residents to enjoy the amenities without carrying the ownership burden.

While SoJo city council meetings are frequently jam-packed when it comes to public comment on development issues, the chamber is notably, famously, annually quiet when it comes time to approve the city’s annual budget. At the meeting to pass this year’s budget, the elected and city officials on the dais outnumbered the audience in the chambers by more than two times.

The budget’s “sailing through” and, according to Whatcott, the low turnover of officials during election cycles indicate that—regardless of perceived alarmist reports about a high level of taxation in a city where the median income hovers around $100,000—“There are not lightning bolts going off. Most people feel OK.”