I’ve been in office for just over 100 days and if asked today what are Mapleton’s biggest challenges, I’d respond with one thing: Money. My most pressing worries are regarding funding for streets, funding for the sewer plant replacement, and an underlying need to diversify our revenue sources to ensure long-term solvency (let’s get our eggs into more than one or two-ish baskets (property taxes and development-related fees). Yet, somehow, Mapleton is stable or even in an advantageous position that, 100 days ago, I would’ve sworn impossible. As this pandemic devastates sales-tax-revenue-driven cities, we’re resting cautiously, but optimistically, on our high property taxes and non-dependence on sales tax.
In the absence of an economic catastrophe in our city, we’ve been fortunate to spend the majority of our recent efforts moving forward pre-crisis initiatives, albeit adjusting to Zoom-based City Council meetings, where I anxiously await to see who will have the best background. (So far, I don’t think anyone has beaten my Star Trek Enterprise bridge; however, Sean Conroy, Community Development Director, is apparently known to sneak in old photos of employees – be warned!)
So, while my original “first 100 days” blog was intended to be a list of insights and lessons learned (e.g., Mapleton is well managed; progress comes through prioritization; citizen engagement varies – and that’s okay), I decided that was more for my “Dear Diary” than for the citizens. Instead, I present to you three things I wish our citizens all knew:
Watch the State of the City Address
Given in March, Mayor Dallas Hakes reviewed accomplishments, challenges, and opportunities for the City. Whether you are a constant critic or an engaged enthusiast, take the initiative to learn this fundamental information. The straightforward update will also reinforce the City’s commitment to transparency – it isn’t all rainbows and puppies, folks (but there sure are a lot of rainbows and puppies, thankfully). Please watch and share this important once-a-year information found HERE, at the Mapleton City official Facebook page. It’s about 28 minutes, so grab a beverage and pull up a chair.
Understand the Wastewater Treatment Plant Situation
Currently, Mapleton owns 26% of the operations for the Spanish Fork Wastewater Treatment Plant. New requirements from the State Division of Water Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency are resulting in upgrades or total replacements to treatment plants across the State. The 50-year-old Spanish Fork Plant is outdated and has inadequate capacity to support the growth of both cities. As such, a replacement is required. The replacement is estimated to cost $80M, $20M of which is Mapleton’s portion. We are currently working through multiple scenarios to ensure a win-win for both cities and citizens. No matter the scenario, however, a fee increase will occur.
The unfortunate aspect for those of us who have to cast votes is that citizens will not likely observe any improvements to service: your toilets will still flush, but won’t magically become self-cleaning. Throughout the process, we have considered our citizens and their needs, including those on fixed incomes, those with smaller households, those with larger households, and our large senior population. For some, this will be painful. We know that and are working to find the best option. As of our Council meeting yesterday (4.15.2020), it looks like there is a potential solution that I’d consider a huge win. I’m hoping our summer rate increase (about July 1) will be no more than $10 per month (per connection) and that future annual increases will be comparable until we hit a maximum rate that’ll carry us until the facility is paid off. (As a note of consideration, we are currently one of the lowest rates in the State at $25.45 per month.) I also support publishing a 5-year fee schedule to provide advance notice for citizens who would benefit from advanced notice and as a measure of transparency. I expect this will also occur.
While it’s hard to be in this position, it’s is something we must do; now, though, our responsibility rests in finding the best financing model for our city and citizens. I believe we’ll get there. Meanwhile, what our citizens can do to support this initiative is to understand the cost of municipal services, accept the “must-do” reality of the situation, and begin identifying strategies to accommodate a fee increase for their household monthly budgets.
(Also, it would be helpful if no one brings rotten fruit to throw at the Council. Perhaps that’s another reason Zoom is beneficial.)
Learn About Optimal Street Degradation Schedules
Okay, so I like the phrase “optimal street degradation schedules.” As I’ve learned more about this subject, what I’ve come to love is that this term reflects the City’s transition from an often-reactive street maintenance strategy to proactive, long-term strategy driven by data science and enhanced by technology. Steven Lord, our Public Works Director and City Engineer, has put on his magic sorting hat and is finalizing a streets master plan that includes the assessment and grading of every street in Mapleton, goals for maintenance, and identification of in which year each maintenance strategy is applied to each street. By following this plan, we could effectively add up to 20 years to the life of each street, saving us millions of dollars over time.
We anticipate a major investment (potentially $6M) to get the entire city to the optimal maintenance level and we would like to tackle this within the next few years. In fact, last month we approved a historic $1.4M investment in our streets for the 2019-2020 fiscal year (maintenance to be completed by June 30; check out the interactive 2020 street maintenance map here.). Our approach to funding this investment was through conservative routes that protect our reserves, too. In addition to improving the long-term strategy, this plan maximizes the use of each tax dollar and responds to the citizen requests (including those documented through the recent survey) supporting investment in our streets.
So, what can our citizens do to support this effort? Give Public Works an elbow-five if you’re ever able to get within six feet of them. This is a positive step for – literally – generations.
Finally, since this is my “100 Days” blog, I wanted to include two of the most personal observations during my brief service:
It’s a tough job and I love it.
I’ve invested hundreds of hours in City work over the last few months. It has challenged me, brought out every emotion, and made me question myself one too many times. Yet, the biggest conflict for me is how much I love it – I want to work on all the things and with all the people – so finding a balance with family, work, and other responsibilities is difficult at times.
Service is at our core.
I’ve been in dozens of committee meetings to see how our citizens, elected officials, and staff take on challenges, create beautiful opportunities to enhance relationships and culture, and give generously of their time and other resources. What we have here is amazing and my gratitude and love for our neighbors grow all the time. We need you – thank you!
Each morning, I hear several killdeer rehearsing their repertoire along 1200 West. These ground-nesting birds fascinate me with their effective use of injury-feigning display to distract would-be maliciousness from their nests. My first encounter with a killdeer sucked me in – I truly believed that mama had a broken wing and that I needed to intervene. When I realized she wasn’t injured and Googled to understand her motives, my concerned turned to respect. This was a visual display of Darwinism.
So, what does this have to do with tax reform?
Firstly, it’s essential to understand the situation to develop an appropriate response. Had I attempted to care for the killdeer, I might have done more harm. Similarly, jumping into tax reform without understanding the situation may, too, result in ineffective solutions and unintended consequences.
Secondly, like the impressive diversion created by the feigned injury, tax reform is an area of controversy and complexity through which agendas and lobbying are ever-present. If we respect one another and our shared goals in society, we receive the killdeer’s message and step away from the vicinity of the nest. If not, we deviously revel in our awareness that her behaviors actually result in the nest temporary abandonment – an ideal time to strike.
Thirdly, tax reform itself – done poorly – may serve a Darwinian role to the economy. Likewise, so, too, may the lack of tax reform.
Regardless of whether you buy the analogy, understanding the situation, acknowledging its controversy and complexity, and being ever-diligent in using data to model effective outcomes prior to changing law are three critical aspects of this process.
Now, for the specifics.
Utah’s tax code is extremely outdated and, although we’re an economically sound state and recognized for our effective financial management, the money isn’t flowing into or out of the right buckets. For example, current law (written in the 1980s) places a large emphasis on sales of goods. However, consumers in the 2010s purchase more services than goods. As such, we see insufficient revenue in our general fund. However, we have an income surplus. Fundamentally, the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario applies in Utah.
Other factors beyond goods and services models that influence our current dilemma include increasing demands on the general fund that accompany increases in population (e.g., air quality, Medicaid, homelessness) and our own choices to reduce food taxes and increase exemptions and earmarks.
An interesting point made by Commissioner John Valentine at the enlightening Bold Ideas on Tax Reform Workshop that I attended this week (through the Public Policy Committee of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce) was regarding the impact of technology on tax code. Technology has changed the delivery of goods to the extent that they’ve become lesser-taxable services. Valentine’s example presented the evolution of movies – purchasing a ticket or downloading a movie results in sales tax; however, streaming the same movie results in no sales tax.
In Mapleton, we understand an urgency to diversify our tax base. This is no different than the wisdom in an individual diversifying an investment portfolio. In the City’s case, this includes filling designated commercial zones (primarily along Highway 89). In my meetings with community members, there has been some concern expressed that we’re too small for retail and services (such as medical offices) do not contribute as significantly. Would a tax reform that broadens the tax base without increasing overall taxes be a potential help for our City’s portfolio? (Yep.)
At the Workshop, potential solutions currently being modeled and some new ideas were discussed, some of which would require a State Constitution modification. Among these conversations included: raising taxes, eliminating exemptions and earmarks, increasing sales tax on groceries and/or services, changing the allocations for income and/or property taxes, and reducing non-taxable federal lands.
One thing I’ve repeatedly said is that win or lose, the process of running for office has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life (and I’m just getting started). The knowledge I’ve gained and people I’ve met are irreplaceable. However, one thing has become abundantly clear and that is this: all politics are local politics. If you don’t think tax reform will impact our community or you personally, consider the examples I’ve noted here – it gets a bit personal, right?
If you’re interested in getting involved, the State Tax Commission is calling for feedback and ideas. Visit the website at https://tax.utah.gov/ for information on all-things-tax, reach out to them at https://tax.utah.gov/contact, or reach out directly to Commissioner Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.