Deadline looms as budget battle continues in South Salt Lake
Jun 11, 2019 04:07PM
By Bill Hardesty
Ben Pender, Mark Kindred, Shane Siwik, and Corey Thomas prepare for the public hearing on the proposed budget June 5, 2019. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)
By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]
The budget journey continues.
Imagine two speeding trains on different tracks heading to the same destination. On one track is Mayor Cherie Wood’s train. She is calling for a 31 percent property tax increase to pay for a 15 percent across-the-board pay increase for police officers and firefighters.
On the other track is the band of four — Councilmembers Mark Kindred, Ben Pender, Corey Thomas and Shane Siwik. These councilmembers have vowed no property tax increase. They believe a smaller pay increase is possible by cutting “fat” from the budget.
The three remaining council members (Ray deWolfe, Sharla Bynum and Portia Mila) are trying to find a way to get the two trains on the same track before the state-imposed deadline. According to Utah State Code 10-6-118, "Before June 30 of each fiscal period, ... the governing body shall by resolution or ordinance adopt a budget for the ensuing fiscal period."
Simply stated, the two trains need to pass a budget by June 30 or the dominoes begin to fall.
Cutting the budget
Before any city council public work was done on the proposed budget, Councilmember Thomas made her feelings clear in a Facebook post on May 21.
"I want everyone to know that I do not support the tax increase. SSL is 7% up in revenue plus SSL already has the highest sales tax in the State! It’s not right to ask 31% more from our residents, when we are the poorest city in the state with family income. When simple budget adjustments could be made to give public safety raises," she wrote.
During the May 22 work meeting Councilmember Siwik stated his position and that of the three others.
"There are four of us committed not to raise taxes," he stated.
In the May 22 city council regular meeting, they started to hear from concerned residents who were opposed to the tax increase and concerned parties such as Matt Oehler, president of the South Salt Lake Fraternal Order of Police, who are in favor of the tax increase.
"You are bleeding," he said referring to the high turnover of first responders.
After hearing comments and a short discussion, the council turned to other business.
The May 30 meeting began with a discussion on the importance of funding storm water improvements, after the once-in-a-100-year storm hit the area the previous Friday and resulted in localized urban flooding.
Pender asked what is important to each council member. Funding a raise for public safety was a common response. Along with funding, the arts and storm water infrastructure were others. On Kindred’s list was no tax increase and Bynum asked, "What are we sacrificing?"
Pender brought up a cost for police services across the county survey. The numbers showed the cost for police services in South Salt Lake was the highest per capita. In a later meeting (June 5), deWolfe called it a "red herring" because it is not an accurate comparison.
One fact that makes South Salt Lake unique to other cities is that during the day the population is 75,000, but at night around 25,000. A debate whether the police department budget should be based on the daytime population or the nighttime population ensued.
Kindred repeated his opinion, "A tax increase is not on the table since money is rolling into the coffers."
Kindred was referring to revenue from sales tax is up 7 percent and there was a large increase in fees such as building permits.
Mayor Wood pointed out that they have had a shoestring budget for years and any additional cuts would cut services. "What services do you want to cut?" she asked.
With that, Siwik pulled out his pen and started to go line by line in the budget. He didn't view them as cuts, but "simply belt tightening." The main strategy was to look over three years of spend totals and come close to the average.
Throughout the process, department managers like Police Chief Jack Carruth, City Engineer Dennis Pay and Jim Hignite, building division manager, tried to slow the cuts/the tightening, but with little success.
When the dust settled, the city council found enough savings to offer a 9 percent across-the-board raise (aka a cost of living adjustment) and 4 percent merit pool for first responders. Providing a merit pool was important to Pender.
The proposed code enforcement officer increase in staff in departments like Public Works and Building Inspection, the code update project, additional paving, and capital projects remained on the floor.
Later in the week, Bynum offered her assessment of the meeting.
"Though I was disappointed that other members of the council wouldn’t consider a hybrid of cuts along with a property tax increase, I appreciate that we were able to have discussion and a level of compromise concerning the cuts.
“You’ll notice I kept coming back to the word sustainability. Our proposed budget doesn’t provide a sustainable pay increase for our first responders. In addition to this looming issue, we also have storm water funded with one-time money from excess building permit revenue. Both of these issues will be back in front of us next year.
“A celebration for my residents is that we have now designated funding for an effective storm water system on Maxwell Lane and 300 East. This means less wear and tear on sidewalks and roads.
“One disappointment was the elimination of a parking enforcement job. Of all my years on the council, this has been the worst for parking complaints from residents. I saw this as more proactive solution to the problem, someone just focused on parking violations."
In an interview with the City Journals, Siwik said a tax increase isn’t necessary.
“We have found a way to give raises to public safety without raising taxes,” he said, questioning why taxes need to be raised when “revenues and sales taxes are very high right now.”
With the proposed 9 percent raise for public safety coming through budget cuts, there is concern among officials and residents there is no sustainable source for the raises. But Siwik said if they continue cutting the way the band of four proposed each year, then it becomes sustainable.
When asked if Siwik felt the mayor wasn’t managing the budget well and if there was too much fluff, he responded, “yes.”
“Based on what I have seen this year, I would be hard pressed to consider a tax increase next year as well.”
Before hearing from the public in the June 5 meeting Wood read her response to the city council's actions.
"One of my administration’s priorities for this budget year was to identify a sustainable funding source for South Salt Lake’s Public Safety Departments. I believe that a safe community is the bedrock of a well-functioning city," Wood said.
She continued, "But last Thursday, the majority of the city council proposed its own solution to this funding issue. Without asking about the impact, the majority of the council chose to cut $1.3 million from the city’s already tight budget—a move that does not solve our public safety problems—but instead threatens key services and reduces other valuable revenue sources."
The mayor outlined four ways the proposed budget impacts city services.
- Cut in professional services results in less grant writing, which could result in the Promise program losing $1.4 million.
- A $50,000 cut to Community and Economic Development results in city codes not being updated contrary to the city council direction to update codes and process applications in a more timely manner.
- Eliminating funds for Parking Enforcement, which prevents solving residential parking issues. In addition, cuts don't address serious infrastructure challenges like storm water.
- The proposed public safety increase does not make South Salt Lake City Police Department competitive. Research indicates a 15 percent increase is needed.
Wood concluded her prepared statement with, "South Salt Lake has been deferring investment in significant areas for years. This strategy of kicking the can down the road will not work — and worse — it will result in our residents becoming overburdened with extraordinary tax and fee increases all at one time. One has to ask, ‘What is the motivation for putting our city at risk like this?’ A suspicious or skeptical person might wonder if the majority of the council even cares about South Salt Lake remaining a city."
In a marathon meeting, the mayor and city council heard from residents and concerned individuals about each of the proposed budget.
It appeared that about two-thirds of the residents who spoke were in favor on the 31 percent property tax increase and were against the city council proposed budget. They made statements such as: "Have to pay for a higher standard of living," "What we lose isn't worth the gain," "The city is on the move," "SSLC is a great place to live and we all need to share in the responsibility," and "We shouldn't be pitting other departments against public safety."
Residents who spoke against the proposed property tax increase and in favor of the city council proposed budget made statements such as: "SSLC is one of the poorest cities per capita in the state," "In the private sector, an average raise is 2 percent — Let economics fuel the growth," "Thankful for Pender and others who are standing up," "Need better leadership, not a property tax increase," "It just isn't homeowners hit with the increase — renters pay for the increase and more," and "There is a resistance to accountability by the administration."
One touching plea was from Liz Romrell, Officer David Romrell's widow. She said that David loved this city, but he felt it was too dangerous to live in. She pleaded for support for first responders and concluded by saying, "His life wasn't worth $40,000 a year. That is all he got paid." Many in the audience gave her a standing ovation.
After hearing from the public, the council began to discuss how to proceed. There were some who pushed for some form of a compromise while others held their ground.
Kyle Kershaw, director of finance, clarified the city has not raised the property tax rate since 2006. Residents have seen an increase because the assessment on their homes has gone up.
After more than four hours, the city council adjourned by moving any further budget discussion to a work and regular meeting on June 12.