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Free services for youth a bright spot in tight budget year for Salt Lake County

Dec 01, 2023 01:02PM ● By Ella Joy Olsen

Fairmont Aquatic and Recreation Center is one of many county recreation centers that will be free of charge for county youth if the proposed 2024 Salt Lake County budget is passed. (Ella Joy Olsen/City Journals)

At the end of October, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson presented the 2024 annual budget to the County Council and the public. Council will consider the proposed budget during a series of hearings, before voting on the final budget on Dec. 5.

Salt Lake County has a proposed budget of nearly $2 billion dollars and details can be found in a 650 page PDF document available online. The short of it? It’s a belt tightening kind of year, but there are a few bright spots.

“You’re already aware there has been a slowdown in tax revenue this year. It’s no secret that the economy is stretched thin by inflation and the cost of goods. Salt Lake County residents must manage their households with less purchasing power per dollar, and so must we. And unlike the federal budget, the county balances its budget each year,” said Wilson during the address.

Salt Lake County is among only a handful of counties that has a Triple-A bond rating and is rated as one of the most fiscally responsible counties in the nation, and Wilson aims to keep it that way, while continuing to provide existing, quality services to county residents.

Services provided by the county are numerous, ranging from libraries and recreation centers, to mental health services and services for aging adults. It is also responsible for criminal justice, which includes behavioral health, jails and prosecution. Within the budget are the services provided by the County Health Department from expected things like screenings and immunizations, to more obscure services like noise pollution, noxious weed control, tobacco prevention, bee inspection and water quality. The county also provides culture and arts opportunities via venues like the Eccles Theater and the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center and through various localized programs. 

Belt tightening measures

Tax revenue for 2023 increased by about 2%, but the increase was absorbed by rising costs. Healthcare premiums increased by 10% for county employees and inflation increased general costs of operation for existing county services. Additionally, much of the Covid-19 relief funding which padded the county budget has expired.

To tighten the belt, the mayor proposed a targeted hiring freeze of vacant open positions that have remained unfilled for six months or more. Also, the county has already denied 90% of requests for general funding increases by divisions and departments, while allowing the county to continue to fulfill contractual obligations and existing programs. Additionally, the county hopes to reduce travel expenses by county employees by half, resulting in a savings of approximately a million dollars.  

Bright spots for county employees and county youth

County employees: “I’ll be honest, the amount I’m recommending for employee compensation is far less than I’d like,” said Wilson, while proposing a 2.75% salary increase for employees and sworn officers. Wilson also proposed a round of one-time tiered employee recognition pay.

Though there was a significant increase in healthcare costs for the county, none of the increase will be passed on to employees, and employees with a high deductible plan will continue to pay nothing for monthly premiums.

County Recreation Centers: The mayor proposed opening rec centers to all kids in Salt Lake County, free of charge, via a new program called My County Recs Pass. Currently the annual rate for an All-County recreation center pass for youth (ages 3-17) is $135, with slightly lower rates for one-center options. For families with tight budgets, this optional expense is something they cannot easily afford. 

The My County Recs Pass program proposal is projected to cost $2.3 million annually. This cost represents the personnel and operational costs in addition to the reduction in revenue from youth pass sales. Costs will be covered using TRCC funding, an existing tax set aside by the county to support cultural and economic growth within its boundaries. 

“We are also expecting some new revenues from adult passes for parents and increased sign-ups for programs,” said Robin Chalhoub, Director of Community Services for Salt Lake County. “We did not add that [increased revenue] to the proposal and we are excited to see how it increases.”

County Library late fees: Wilson also proposed eliminating County Library late fees for children. This program was piloted during the summer of 2023, based on the concern that late fees are a barrier to lower income families coming to the library to borrow books and other learning materials, and was a success. The proposed County Library’s 2024 budget contains $115,000 from the Library Fund to replace the potential lost revenue from fees collected. 

“We are implementing these programs to remove barriers for Salt Lake County children and teens to libraries and recreation centers. We know that by having access to these services, our youth will have improved socio-emotional and physical health,” Chalhoub said. “The overall community benefits from the promotion of well-being, safety, and social cohesion. Additionally, health disparities, inequities, and long-term costs associated with healthcare and juvenile delinquency are potentially reduced.” λ