Salt Lake County cuts barely dent proposed tax hike
Salt Lake County Council members looked everywhere for ways to cut Mayor Peter Corroon's proposed 2013 budget and its 17.5 percent tax increase for countywide services.
But after dissecting the $788 million budget for nearly three weeks, the most the Republican-majority council could cut Tuesday from Democrat Corroon's budget was about $2.5 million.
That would lower the proposed property-tax increase to 16.2 percent. For the owner of a $238,000 home, the county's median value, the council's tentative budget would mean a $59-a-year tax hike. The mayor's budget would have increased taxes on that home by $64.
"We appreciate that this was a very difficult budget," said Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn, who was representing Corroon when the council approved the tentative budget about 8:45 p.m. after 10 hours of poring through line items. "It showed the mayor presented a light, lean budget."
But one with a tax increase nonetheless. And that had council members wondering how many irate taxpayers may show up at the County Government Center on Dec. 11 for a 6 p.m. public hearing on the tax hike.
Prepare for plenty, warned longtime Councilman/Commissioner Randy Horiuchi, regaling the council with a war story of an encounter with a big tax-protest crowd.
Employees bore the brunt of the council's cuts.
While the council agreed with the mayor's plan to return the final 1.75 percent of wage cuts enacted at the start of the recession (2.75 percent overall), it voted 5-4 along party lines not to restore a 2 percent county contribution to employees' 401(k) plans.
"We're not reneging on our promise," said Republican Councilman Steve DeBry, contending the improving-but-still-shaky economy had not provided the county with enough revenue to restore the employees' compensation package fully.
"We promised them based on the [financial] numbers coming in, and the numbers are still not there," he said. "We have to draw the line and make cuts somewhere, based on what we're staring at with the public" in terms of the proposed tax increase.
The council also removed another $500,000 from a wellness program that provided financial incentives for county employees to follow healthy lifestyles, and thus reduce the demands on health insurance programs and the premiums paid by both the county and its workers.
The only other major cut was a $500,000 drop in information technology funding.
When it came time to vote on the budget and the revised tax increase proposal, Republican Chairman David Wilde and his conservative colleague Richard Snelgrove voted against it because the remaining tax increase was too high.
They were joined in opposition by Democrats Arlyn Bradshaw and Jim Bradley, who felt the council's alterations went too far with too little reward. Said Bradley: "You really have to be fair to the employees. We have an opportunity to restore [their compensation] as we said we would. Now's the exact time to do that."
But the other five council members voted for the overall budget, setting the tax increase at 16.2 percent heading into the Dec. 11 public hearing.
The tenor of the day was set early when the council started going through the mayor's recommendation to hire 38 new full-time employees.
This was a place where Wilde and Snelgrove felt they could trim expenses and reduce the proposed tax increase. But they were voted down repeatedly after department heads convinced the majority of council members that these workers were needed from irrigation specialists who could reduce water usage in parks to an early case resolution team in the District Attorney's Office.
All were hired, to the chagrin of Wilde, referring to himself and Snelgrove as "The Grinch and Scrooge."
But they will have a chance to make further cuts before the budget is finalized on Dec. 13. The council may not exceed the 16.2 percent increase advertised in legal notices about the Dec. 11 public hearing, but it can make changes that reduce that tax hike.
Salt Lake County's tentative 2013 budget, as adopted Tuesday by the County Council, would:
• Require a 16.2 percent property tax increase to fund countywide services, down from Mayor Peter Corroon's proposed 17.5 percent increase.
• Cost the average homeowner about $59 more per year, down from the mayor's $64 plan
• Completely restore wage cuts county employees took in 2009 because of the recession, but would not restore the county's 2 percent contribution to their 401(k) plans.
• Include two sizable projects not in the mayor's budget $1 million for the Living Planet Aquarium in Draper and $250,000 for an underpass serving Dimple Dell Park in Sandy.
• Dropped nearly $500,000 in funding in Corroon's budget for a new-media center at Salt Lake Community College.