Over the last year or so, it seems that Orem has taken a real hammering over UTOPIA expenses. Witness the latest low-information rant masquerading as publishable material for further evidence of this. The common refrain is that UTOPIA causes nothing but financial despair for cities. If that’s the case, why aren’t we hearing more stories like this about other cities?
Maybe it’s because UTOPIA isn’t the giant sinkhole people like to think it is. As I’ve discussed before, the issue Orem (and Taylorsville, and, to a lesser degree, West Valley City) is facing is all about having made bets on sales tax revenue from retail driven by out-of-town shoppers. That worked for a few decades, and Oremites got to enjoy some great city services and frozen property tax rates for that time.
But then the perfect storm hit. Retailers ran out of space in fast-growing Utah County and moved up to American Fork and Lehi. The recession killed off a lot of companies not nimble enough to weather it. And, most importantly, online retailers like Amazon swooped in and ganked away business on everything from books to TVs to furnaces (yes, they sell those). Any city who depended too heavily on retail got creamed.
Smart cities developed office space to diversify their tax base. Murray scored the Intermountain Medical Center. Midvale turned a superfund site into a fiber-loaded business park. And Orem? They lost Adobe to Lehi while a giant mixed use development stayed half-finished for years. And why? Because retail is what mattered to them.
This has nothing to do with UTOPIA. It has everything to do with the city overextending itself in myriad ways during good times. The responsible thing to do would be to explain the problem to the voters and undertake the long-overdue rebalancing of revenue streams back onto other sources. Opportunists, of which there are many, instead bury the boring issue of an imbalanced tax base under a hot-button scapegoat to suit their own agenda. Don’t let them get away with it.