Limited and Open Government

What Exactly is a City?

“Should we become a city?” Residents in five areas of Utah are asking this question. As reported by Jacob Scholl in a recent article, the residents in these areas have various desires and concerns about the prospect. To help understand the implications of achieving city status, let’s explore a few fundamental questions.

What Even Is A City?

A city is a place that has chosen — through a process outlined in state law called municipal incorporation — to form its own government structure with official boundaries. Once incorporated, a city is its own legal entity. It has taxing authority, a city council, a planning commission, and can own assets such as land, roads, sewage treatment plants, etc.

Notably, the process of incorporation is not initiated by the state or county government, but begins with an interested group of people that currently live within an unincorporated part of a county going around and gathering signatures.

In short, cities (or municipalities as they are called in legal contexts) are much more than a road sign and a name to call a geographic area. In Utah, any incorporated municipality with less than 1,000 residents is technically a town.

Do New Cities Get New Laws?

The council of a new city would have the power to pass their own “local laws” (called ordinances) that are different from the county ordinances currently in place. However, it’s important to note that all ordinances are bound by the limitations set forth by the state. As a legal matter, an ordinance cannot conflict with existing state law, the state constitution, or the US Constitution.

More Cities, More Taxes?

Would incorporating as a city save residents money on their taxes? It’s possible, but without limits on city powers and an openness to new business and growth, incorporation could lead to higher taxes and fees than those imposed by the county. The likelihood and scale of a potential tax increase can be partially determined by a close inspection of the feasibility study — a document that contains the comprehensive financial analysis required by the incorporation process. As with all governments, however, tax policy is subject to change based on the opinions of elected officials and also financial circumstances that are difficult to predict and account for.

More Freedom?

For many, the incorporation question will hinge on what levels of freedom the new government will offer. Legally, cities (or counties) cannot provide more freedoms than permitted by the state government. It is entirely possible, however, for a given city or county to offer very different freedoms when compared to each other. For example, the new government may give property owners more freedom and control over their property, or they may choose to abridge them more than the county currently does.

Settled at the Ballot Box

Assuming the proposed cities clear the preliminary hurdles, the question of whether or not any of these five areas will become a city will ultimately be decided at the ballot box. After the registered voters living within the proposed areas have their say, we will all find out which of these areas will become Utah’s newest cities.

Read our policy brief on small lot reforms here.