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SLC Council overrides Becker's veto of $8M property tax hike

Published June 21, 2013 2:28 pm

Salt Lake City • Disagreement on an $8M tax hike part of a larger power struggle between mayor and council.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Everyone is smiling but nobody is happy at City Hall, where the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Ralph Becker have been wrestling for control.

The latest takedown came Friday, when the council overrode the mayor's veto of its $221 million budget that included an $8 million property tax hike.

Becker may be the chief executive, but the council controls the purse and this year — more than others in recent memory — the seven-member body has put its foot down.

Usually, it's the mayor who determines whether taxes go up. But it was the council, in a 5-2 vote, that raised property taxes Tuesday against the mayor's wishes. The majority asserted it could wait no longer for Becker to seek funding for the city's crumbling streets, run-down parks and other deferred maintenance on city assets.

The council also dedicated part of the tax bump to keep police and fire departments at current levels as some federal grants expired.

The increase adds $67.93 to the annual tax bill on a house worth $250,000 and boosts the tax on business property valued at $1 million by $494. Some $3 million in new taxes would go into the general fund. At least $4.6 million would go to upkeep on roads and parks and other deferred maintenance.

The council had the five votes required for the override and put its budget and tax hike back on the books. Council members Carlton Christensen and Stan Penfold dissented.

The frustration, on both sides, was more than palpable — it was in writing.

In a letter to the council that accompanied the veto, the mayor criticized the body for not considering "a range of funding options" or providing "meaningful involvement of our public" in the budget deliberations.

And he added this: "The Salt Lake City Council has taken steps to further intrude on executive and administrative functions through a 'contingency' funding approach that hinders the city's ability to implement the intentions of the council and the mayor ... and results in the kinds of inefficiencies and bureaucratic barriers that our residents do not want."

The contingency funding Becker referred to includes nine conditions the council, through its budget, placed on spending. For example, the council funded a position called "transportation deputy director" on the condition that "the administration explore and report to the council by Nov. 1 regarding opportunities to fund bus shelters and create revenue by allowing advertising on bus shelters."

It's information the council has been asking Becker to produce for years but has, apparently, fallen on deaf ears, said Council Chairman Kyle LaMalfa.

"We're sending a message that council priorities are important, too," LaMalfa said in an interview. "We're saying, 'OK, you can have this transportation deputy director, but you have to give us our bus shelter information.' "

LaMalfa conceded that, although the tone of the debate is civil, the kid gloves are off. "Grappling over the balance of power [in City Hall] is alive and well."

David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff, called the council's contingency appropriations move "pushing the envelope" of its legislative power. "It's a clear shift in the council's stance," he said.

Councilwoman Jill Remington Love agreed the council and mayor have "philosophical differences on how to proceed."

The mayor criticized the council for acting hastily, but Remington Love said the six-week budget deliberations were not held in a vacuum. The council has waited for years to begin catching up on maintenance projects.

"I do think there was a tug of war there," she said in an interview. "But the council wanted to control where the money was spent."

Further, Remington Love said potential new revenue sources the mayor referenced in talking about avoiding a tax increase — sales tax on Internet sales, new transportation fees and state funding to offset city services provided to commuters — may not materialize.

Councilman Soren Simonsen took issue with the mayor's assertion that the public was not involved. He referred to the master plan process by which every section of the city prioritizes a wish list of capital improvements through a series of public meetings.

But Penfold, who did not approve of the tax hike, said he sided with the mayor on the lack of public involvement during budget deliberations.

"I don't believe we are about to collapse," he said of the city's infrastructure. "I regret we haven't had a more thorough public process."

Among the mayor's criticisms was that the council did not consider whether the city had sufficient staff to carry out the work promised by the tax hike.

Christensen, the second "no" vote on the tax increase, took heed of the mayor's scolding and said the council should prioritize maintenance projects that can be accomplished in the coming year.

"The concern I have is the council raises taxes and not all the money gets spent," he said in an interview. "That would be a travesty."

csmart@sltrib.com

How to spend it?

The Salt Lake City Council will hold two public hearings to ask residents and business owners how to prioritize spending on roads and parks and other city assets: 7 p.m. July 9 and 16, Room 315 at City Hall, 451 S. State St.