After bickering, Salt Lake County Council passes 2018 budget of $1.3B — and change

Republicans balk at adding $367,000 to the $1.3 billion sought in Mayor Ben McAdams’ proposal.

The Salt Lake County Council passed its 2018 budget on a squeaker 5 to 4 vote Tuesday after some politically charged bickering over the final $1,300,367,000 price tag.

Republicans on the council objected to the total because it’s $367,000 over the amount Mayor Ben McAdams sought in his November budget proposal.

The overrun will require the county to dip into its general-fund balance, a move conservatives said is neither fiscally responsible nor in the best interest of taxpayers.

“When we keep our fund balance high, it means there’s a longer time before we need a tax increase,” Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said, setting up the debate that followed. “I feel like there was more that we could have done to cut and trim.”

Councilmen Richard Snelgrove, Max Burdick and Chairman Steve DeBry voted “no,” as did Newton. All four are Republicans.

On DeBry’s list of concerns was a pair of expenditures he said he couldn’t support — a $200,000 economic development study of the county’s Oquirrh View area and a last-minute $215,000 addition to the $751,000 increase McAdams had proposed for the Legal Defenders Association, which provides attorneys to indigent criminal defendants.

DeBry also said he feared that taking money from the fund might hurt the county’s AAA bond rating. He said he was hesitant to use what is considered a fund for unexpected expenses — like what came up in the latter part of this year, when the county got involved with the Operation Rio Grande law enforcement effort.

“Imagine your own budget,” he said. “Do you look at your savings account and decide to spend, spend, spend just because you can?”

The declarations from Republicans brought a sharp rebuke from Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who said she was blindsided by their refusals of support for a budget that had been worked on through weeks of bipartisan compromise and that posed no significant financial risk.

“This is a solid budget,” Wilson said. “It’s in balance and it’s structurally sound. So for this late movement to make a political statement is doing nothing other than making noise. It offends me because I feel like we work well together.”

In response, the council weighed the idea of voting down this version and trying to get the budget back down to the $1.3 billion McAdams had proposed.

That idea fizzled after the county’s chief financial officer, Darrin Casper, said the $367,000 was a tiny part of the general-fund reserve, which he projected to be $50 million or more this time next year.

“And we’re hung up on $367,000?” Democratic Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said.

DeBry later said he was puzzled by Wilson’s reaction because in a preliminary vote two weeks ago, the 2018 budget had passed on a vote of 6 to 3.

Despite the bickering, McAdams walked away with nearly everything he wanted for 2018, including a 2.5 percent pay raise for county employees, funds for five new libraries and $2 million to cover the costs of the 2018 election.

Most importantly for the mayor, it includes $7.4 million to open the long-shuttered Oxbow jail, which will add 368 beds to the jail-bed inventory.

Closed for nearly 14 years, Oxbow’s reopening is a key part of Operation Rio Grande, a multijurisdictional effort to curb homelessness and criminal activity in downtown Salt Lake City. The operation led to 1,700 arrests in is first six weeks and includes a drug-court diversion program and drug-addiction treatment, costs that are also paid for in part by the county’s budget.

“The budget passed with bipartisan support; I’m happy to have that,” McAdams said after the vote. “The budget is sound, we accomplished all of our priorities without raising taxes, it’s respectable work.”