Ben McAdams says Salt Lake County can pay for Operation Rio Grande without a tax hike

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune (FILE PHOTO) Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams delivered his budget speech in the County Council chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 24, where he said new initiatives could be paid for by streamlining operations and normal growth in tax collections. No tax hike is needed.

Salt Lake County’s commitment to curbing homelessness and drug addiction through Operation Rio Grande has created a $30 million burden on the 2018 budget, although Mayor Ben McAdams says those costs can be covered without a tax hike.

McAdams presented his $1.3 billion budget Tuesday, delivering a speech in which he focused on the county’s share of Operation Rio Grande costs — from jail beds to treatment programs and drug courts. That money has to come from somewhere,

“This was a tough budget,” said McAdams, a Democrat who last week announced he’ll challenge GOP Rep. Mia Love for Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat in 2018. “Ensuring that we have the resources we need to keep the people of Salt Lake County safe is what we’ve prioritized to the exclusion of almost everything else.”

To balance the numbers, the McAdams budget team is getting help in a couple of ways. First, a revenue increase of about $12 million — new growth from property and sales taxes — is anticipated for 2018 ; and second, all county departments were tasked with taking a hard look at their budgets to look for efficiencies and implored only to ask for priorities they could back with data.

“We’ve identified $24 million in cuts,” McAdams said.

Pair those funds with the $2.8 million reimbursement the county expects from the state for Operation Rio Grande expenses, and the county is on its way to paying for the increased public safety bills.

The mayor’s budget proposal is now headed to the Salt Lake County Council, which on Nov. 1 begins its annual effort to hammer out a final spending plan.

Nothing McAdams said Tuesday felt our of left field, including the mayor’s pricey proposal to reopen the shuttered Oxbow Jail, County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican, said.

“But I am always happy when we hear that we are going to try to avoid a tax increase by streamlining budgets,” she said. “There are still things I think we can be looking at in the budget to continue to streamline.”

There is no denying the significant impact Operation Rio Grande — a policy decision the council didn’t help make — will have on funding requests for 2018, Winder Newton said. And there’s also no denying how critical criminal justice services, including drug and mental health treatment, are to maintaining public safety, she said .

“I think over 60 percent of our general fund goes to criminal justice,” Winder Newton said. “It’s very much our top priority and it should be.”

Opening the shuttered Oxbow Jail is one of McAdams’ biggest asks. At a price of $7.4 million, the county could expand its jail capacity by 368 beds. That would also allow the sheriff’s office to bring 300 inmates who are currently housed at facilities in Davis, Tooele and Weber counties back to Salt Lake County, reducing costs.

The drawback: That only pays for officer training and ramped-up costs to open the jail in first six months of 2018. State money will help, said McAdams, who is in talks to get state permission to dedicate all of the county’s second-year reimbursement tied to Operation Rio Grande to jail expenses.

After that, McAdams said the county will have to find a way to keep Oxbow open.

Another big ticket in the 2018 McAdams budget: A 2.5 percent across-the-board raise at a cost of about $2.6 million, money that would add to a $4 million reserve previously set aside for compensation issues.

“We want to remain an attractive workplace with competitive salaries and benefits because that is how we do out best work for our residents,” McAdams said, drawing some applause from the standing-room only crowd in the council chambers.

Other highlights of the 2018 budget proposal are plans to invest in the county’s Equestrian Park in South Jordan, funding for new libraries in Kearns, South Salt Lake, West Valley City, South Jordan and Herriman, along with economic development efforts that draw in higher-paying jobs and look to replace convention revenue lost with the departure of the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade shows that left after two decades in Utah.