St. George • rejecting a property tax hike to bolster public safety, the St. George City Council opted to cut some projects in the proposed 2023 fiscal year budget and to use the resulting savings to pay for more police officers, dispatchers and firefighters.
Council members approved the $500 million budget late last month. The vote came after the council cut nearly $3.16 million from the revenue side of the budget, an amount equal to what the property tax hike would have generated had it passed.
They further lopped off more than $4.3 million from the budget’s expenditure side and elected to use part of the savings to partially fund the first year of Safe St. George, an ambitious $90 million plan that calls for hiring of 46 police officers and 22 civilians to the police department and 34 firefighters and two civilians to the fire department over five years. The plan also calls for the construction of four fire stations, 158 police and fire vehicles and pay hikes for public safety employees.
With the savings they found in the budget, the City Council set aside roughly $1.05 million to hire an additional eight police officers, six dispatcher workers and 12 firefighters.
“I appreciate that the council was willing to support this,” said St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead. “It’s going to allow us to show our support for our police employees.”
Starting pay for St. George police officers is $22 an hour, about $10 an hour less than many other cities pay their officers. Whitehead said the additional funds should enable his department to provide about a $6 an hour increase for police officers and a $2 an hour increase for dispatch employees. It will also fund merit increases between 2% and 5%.
St. George Fire Chief Robert has already hired three new firefighters and will use the additional funding to hire nine more for a new station planned for the Desert Canyons area near the municipal airport.
“We’re still in the design phase on the fire station,” Stoker said. “Our goal is to begin construction this fall.”
Still, the $1.05 million the council found for public safety is far from the $23 million the property tax increase would have generated for Safe St. George over five years. The balance of the $90 million plan is coming from impact fees, grants, bond issuances and city reserves.
To find enough wiggle room in the budget to fund year one of Safe St. George, council members cut $2.1 million that would have funded year two of the plan. They also cut a number of one-time budget expenditures: $850,000 for the Sugarloaf Interpretive Trail project, $500,000 for playground and other renovations to Bloomington Park, $300,000 for the construction of a maintenance shed at Red Hills Golf Course and $140,000 for construction of a road and cinder block wall at the city cemetery.
As Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin sees it, using one-time money in the budget to pay for what is an ongoing expense is foolish.
“It’s really irresponsible for us to hire new officers and new firefighters when we don’t have a stable source of revenue,” Larkin said. “The things in the budget we cut won’t go away. They’ll still be there next year and need to be funded. And we will need much more money next year for the Safe St. George program than the amount we funded this year. There won’t be a magical pot of money that appears next year. "
City officials are committed to funding Safe St. George, one way or another.
By St. George Mayor Michele Randall’s reckoning, the city will have to come up with as much as $6 million in next year’s budget to fund the public safety workers hired this year on top of the money needed to fund year two of the plan.
She views the budget cuts as a stopgap measure until the city can come up with more stable funding for what amounts to ongoing expenses.
“You cannot keep taking one-time money to pay for something like this. It just doesn’t work that way,” the mayor said. “So we just really kicked the can down the road for another time. I think we’ll have to have another discussion about a [property] tax increase again in a couple of years because it is impossible to fund public safety at this kind of level when you haven’t raised property taxes in 35 years.
In 1987, the last time St. George increased property taxes, the city’s population was about 28,000. Today, that population has soared to nearly 100,000. Unfortunately, Larkin and others say, the city’s public safety resources have failed to keep pace.