The three issues behind an incorporation vote in a Utah suburb

After writing earlier this week about the decisions of The Woodlands, Texas to not incorporate, here is the story of the Salt Lake City suburb of Millcreek that is considering incorporation on election day:

To supporters, a city would cobble together a few suburban neighborhoods into a more perfect union. After years of living at the whims of county codes and tax rates, residents of Millcreek said they would, for the first time, be able to keep their tax dollars inside their own borders and write their own future…

Opponents say the status quo works fine. Forming a city would heap municipal rules and expenses atop existing layers of county, state and federal bureaucracy. They say a new city would need money for lawyers, accountants, city buildings and other services now provided by the county, and ultimately be forced to raise taxes.

In 2011, an independent study said that Millcreek’s economics, population and geography would make it a “viable and sustainable” new city. But it also said the area was mostly built-out and had few new opportunities for development, raising the prospect that its expenses would outstrip the money it takes in. If Millcreek goes its own way, the surrounding county would also stand to lose $30 million in annual revenues from one of its wealthiest areas, and be forced to cut services or raise taxes on other residents.
If the measure fails, some residents say they are worried the community will be torn apart. At a time when city budgets are strained, they say that Millcreek’s Home Depot, its for-profit hospital and supermarkets would make ripe targets for annexation by nearby cities.

It sounds like there are a few issues present. First is the issue of revenues. Could an incorporated community afford the services it would be expected to provide? Would it increase the local tax burden, something many suburbanites abhor. Second is the issue of annexation. Incorporation typically provides a community more protection against adjacent communities annexing land. this article suggests what is most at stake are revenue sources such as retail and commercial establishments and perhaps job providers as well.

Though not stated here, I imagine there is also a third issue: the tension between individualism and communitarianism that is often present in American suburbs. On one hand, the suburbs offer homeownership, small parcels of land, the idea that individuals have a little space in which to live their own lives. On the other hand, suburbs, even unincorporated ones, require services such as roads, sewers, schools, police and fire protection, and more that is more easily realized when people pool their resources (tax dollars). Can you have a fully developed community life if individualism wins out? Is community, not just services but also strong and weak ties to neighbors and others in the community, desired by a majority of American suburban residents?

Quickly, some Census statistics about Millcreek: it has just over 62,000 residents; the median household income is $57,385 (about $1,000 above the median for Utah), is 87.2% white and 8.4% Latino, and 41.9% of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

One other note: the article suggests “the election here next Tuesday is a fight about what happens as America’s suburbs grow up.” This is a typical phase that many suburbs go through though it is a bit unusual, as it is for The Woodlands, for a community to grow so large and still not be incorporated.

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