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The City Journals

Mayor’s budget ups property taxes to support first responders’ pay increase

May 17, 2019 12:06PM ● By Bill Hardesty

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood and Director of Finance Kyle Kershaw present their proposed fiscal year 2019-2020 budget to the city council on May 8. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

What can you get for $71?

You can get about 25 Happy Meals at McDonalds. You can get about 23 gallons of gasoline. You can get a pair of shoes or maybe two.

You can also get a more experienced police force or fire department.

At the city council meeting on May 8, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood presented her proposed budget for fiscal year 2019-2020. The proposal included a 31 percent property tax increase to fund a 15 percent pay increase for first responders. It is estimated this increase will cost the average homeowner $71 a year. Residents have not seen a property tax increase from the city since 2006. 

Below are highlights of city council meeting and work meetings held April 3, 18 and May 8:

Battle lines are drawn

Before a city council work meeting on April 3, the mayor was given a letter signed by four council members (Mark Kindred, Ben Pender, Corey Thomas, and Shane Siwik) stating their views on the 2019-2020 budget. The letter was asking for $1 million transferred from administration to the storm water and Capital Improvement fund. 

They stated, "[their] commitment to coming more into line with storm water regulations and the changes we proposed below (i.e., move the one million) are geared towards enabling this to happen." The letter included specific statements such as, "We ... will not fund salaries for department heads/managers who have not yet come before us for advice and consent" and "we also will not budget salaries of any administration personnel to be paid of the city council budget." The authors did make one concession offering to "allocate needed dollars for these raises [for first responders] out of the storm water proposed budget."

Since the letter was given to the mayor in an open meeting, Wood did not respond at that time. However, after presenting her proposed budget, Wood provided her official response. She indicated she did not address the letter in the budget for three reasons.

  1. The letter violates State Code which states a mayor/council form of government cannot interfere with an executive officer performance of their duties. Wood believes that the proposed deep cuts in administration would interfere with her duties to keep the peace, enforce the laws, and execute the policies adopted by the city council.
  2. The letter violates the spirit of the open meeting act. Wood pointed out that while there was a quorum of the council represented in the letter, it was not done in a public meeting and is not transparent.
  3. The Employer Council did an independent adverse impact analysis on the letter. The council concluded that this action would put the city at risk for impact claims by a protective class (women) because:
    1. Five positions would not be funded and four out of the five of them are female.
    2. Cuts in administration where the majority of employees are female to fund police and fire departments that are mostly male.

Stop the revolving door

In the April 18 city council meeting, department heads and managers paraded in front of the council telling them of their needs and issues. Two common themes came out the presentations. The first is the lack of staff. Most were calling for one more employee. The second theme was an increase in wages to keep trained staff. They pointed out that since wages are low, inexperienced employees are hired. They stick around long enough to get trained and gain experience. They then get jobs with other cities that pay more. This causes a revolving door of employees in and out. The result is increase training costs for the city.

Wave of blue

Many audience members wore blue at the May 8 meeting, notably the police officers and firefighters in attendance to encourage a significant wage increase. Matt Oehler, president of the South Salt Lake chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, spoke during the public comment time. He pointed out South Salt Lake lost 30 percent of patrol officers due to pay. He also pointed out that SSL police officers are some of the busiest per call volume. 

He called out Councilman Siwik who, in an interview, raised the idea of contracting with the Unified Police Department (UPD). Oehler said that UPD's model of over promising and under delivering would hurt South Salt Lake. He went on to say the police department has created a positive culture and that would be lost with UPD. Later, Siwik responded by making it clear that he has an obligation to look at all options before raising taxes. 

"I was asked if UPD was an option, and I replied it is," Siwik commented.

Councilman Pender added, "I didn't see the interview as a push to UPD. We are only looking at options. I will not rubber stamp items."

Joe Anderson, representing the local firefighter's union, also spoke during citizens’ comments. He echoed the words of Oehler. He pointed out that South Salt Lake Fire Department captains are last in pay among 16 departments.

"This issue has been going on for some time, but we are now seeing the negative consequences," Anderson said. He went on to say, "We are losing valuable experience and knowledge."

Each speaker received applause from the audience.

Later in the meeting, Kyle Kershaw, South Salt Lake director of finance, presented the proposed budget. With the understanding that 42 percent of the budget comes from sales tax, they are projecting a 4-5 percent increase in sales tax for the general fund. They are also expecting $700,000 in 2019 and $300,000 in building permits in 2020. Also, the state is paying for an additional 12 police officers and 12 EMT's for the Homeless Resource Center.

The budget is calling for a 3 percent cost of living increase for all employees except for first responders. The mayor is calling for one additional employee in IT to handle police IT needs and one enforcement officer to help with parking issues.

The mayor is suggesting a one-time funding of $700,000 from the building permits to be used for storm water improvements including an additional employee.

As mentioned earlier, the budget calls for a 15 percent pay increase for first responders, except for chiefs. A 31 percent increase in property tax will be dedicated to pay for the increase. This will put first responders a little above average with the understanding that other cities will most likely increase their pay.

Kershaw provided other details about the general fund and the capital fund. The proposed budget is available on the city website

The city council set a public hearing date on the budget for June 5. If a tax increase is part of the approved budget, additional meetings will be held most likely in August.