CENTERVILLE — The words may be different, but in the end they mean the same thing.
The uNOpia campaign, which has placed signs in Centerville and Farmington blasting the UTOPIA fiber-optic network, is claiming that the deal with Macquarie includes a large tax increase. According to Centerville officials, however, the deal includes no tax increase of any kind, only the $18-$20 monthly utility fee residents would pay to receive service.
“There is a big difference,” said Centerville City Assistant Manager Blaine Lutz. “I teach the same thing to third grade classes that come in every year. When you pay a fee, you get a distinct service.”
The uNOpia ad campaign is being spearheaded by the Utah Taxpayers Association, which is listed as the point of contact on the uNOpia website. The campaign recently expanded to signs, which were placed in both Centerville and Farmington this past weekend.
When asked about rumors that CenturyLink was paying for the campaign, Royce Van Tassell, the media representative for the Utah Taxpayers Association, said “Like other non-profits, we do not release the names of our donors.”
The signs state that the potential deal with Australian company Macquarie would result in a $1.8 billion tax increase. However, a press release on the issue, posted on utahtaxpayers.org, calls it a “tax or fee,” and states that the total fees for each individual person would be $12,000 “over the life of the project,” which is 30 years.
Van Tassell said that his organization is calling the fee a tax because residents won’t be able to opt out of paying for it.
“Our attorney took a close look at that,” he said. “Utah has fairly robust laws.”
Other long-established fees, however, aren’t optional. In North Salt Lake, West Bountiful, Woods Cross and other Davis County cities, however, all residents who are connected to the city water system must pay the water utility fee, yet it is not considered a tax.
Tassell said that he does not immediately know of a city where the water fee was optional.
“I’d have to look in different cities, to see whether it’s conceivable (that water service is optional),” he said.
Lutz stated that Centerville would decide details about who would be exempt from the UTOPIA fees when and if the city decided to adopt them. There has been previous discussion about creating an exemption for those in financial need.
According to Charlie Roberts, spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission, the terms “tax” and “fee” are used interchangeably in Utah and that state statutes don’t specify a difference.
“In general, taxes are used to generate funds for broad public services, such as property, sales, income, fuel and others,” he said. “The amount of tax someone pays is not necessarily related to the value of any particular government services received. Fees, in general, are used to offset expenses for a specific public service.”
An e-mail flier sent out by the organization also states that “UTOPIA enforcers will be able to cut off your water” if residents don’t pay the proposed utility fee. Both Centerville Mayor Paul Cutler and Lutz have stated that the statement is untrue and has nothing to do with the UTOPIA network. Currently, Centerville City arranges their utility fees so that water goes unpaid if you pay less than the bundled fee, a policy that may change if they decide to adopt the UTOPIA utility fee.
Tassell stands by his organization’s claim that UTOPIA would cut off people’s water.
“Blaine Lutz and Steve Thacker are representatives on the UTOPIA board,” he said. “There is no distinction.”
Centerville City Manager Steve Thacker never served as the city’s representative to the UTOPIA board. Several years ago, he was an alternate for David Gill and did attend a few meetings.
Lutz said he would welcome discussion about the facts of the issue.
“They’re just throwing out scare tactics, which I find unfortunate,” he said. “If you want to talk about the issue, let’s come and really talk about the issue.”