Why the Salt Lake County mayor’s new proposed budget is tight — yet flush

Jenny Wilson’s spending plan includes wage hikes for workers and — thanks to lots of federal aid — a “once-in-a-generation” round of capital upgrades.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson at her office in the Salt Lake County Government on Aug. 31, 2022. The mayor outlined her $1.9 billion proposed budget for 2023 Tuesday, which includes what she's calling a "once-in-a-generation" round of capital spending projects and upgrades.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Tuesday her plan for spending $1.9 billion in 2023 amounts to “a tale of two budgets.”

With inflation and rising labor and health care costs, Utah’s second largest government is unusually tight this year on its own tax dollars to pay for new ongoing programs or staffing hires, Wilson said as she introduced her initial budget at county headquarters.

But county coffers are relatively flush with economic recovery and pandemic-related cash flowing from the federal government, allowing for what the mayor and others called a “once-in-a-generation” chance for one-time capital spending projects and improvements.

As a result, her draft budget — subject to County Council review and final approval by Dec. 6 — lacks any new operational moves or programs but holds a potpourri of budget items addressing nearly $85 million in deferred maintenance, in what Wilson called “an unprecedented opportunity.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake County Government Center, pictured on Monday, May 23, 2022.

Those investments made possible under the American Rescue Plan Act, the Democratic mayor said, “allow for transformational change in our community, especially for those most often left behind.”

The budget’s overall focus, Wilson said later in the day, is on “putting employees first, conserving water, protecting our air, public safety, our economy, expanding open space and addressing homelessness.”

Peel away all the federal money, though, and, according to Darrin Casper, the county’s deputy mayor over finance and administration, the structural balance of county finances is “in a fairly precarious situation.” Due to inflation alone, he said, the county’s per-dollar spending power is at about 87 cents or less today compared with two years ago.

“We’re not projecting a recession,” Casper said, “but when you have slow growth combined with 8.2% inflation, the county will lose ground.”

The nine-member, Republican-majority council has already given a tentative nod to two of the budget’s potentially more contentious proposals: a 25% property tax hike within the county’s library district and upward of a 4% pay raise for county workers.

Beyond those agreed-upon pieces, County Council member Richard Snelgrove said after the budget presentation, “the devil is in the details.”

“We’ll just have to dive in and see,” he said after a short huddle with his GOP council colleagues. “It’s a work in progress.”

County workers to get a pay hike

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Poll workers at Salt Lake County's ballot processing center on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. At left is Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. County employees would get a base pay hike of 4% under Mayor Jenny Wilson's proposed 2023 budget — plus additional bumps to address pay inequities.

Wilson’s budget blueprint includes that proposed 4% wage hike for the county’s nearly 7,000 employees, plus additional bumps to address pay inequities, she said. Low-paid workers would get an additional 4%, middle-grade employees 3%, and the county’s top wage earners would see another 2% on top of the base hike for all.

The county would also continue to cover health insurance premiums for lower-paid workers, even as those continue to rise, including a 7% upward adjustment on that score for law enforcement and jail employees, which Wilson said was meant to help recruit and retain “those who protect us day in and day out.”

“Salt Lake County cannot serve our community without thousands of dedicated employees,” she said of the workforce as a whole, “and we know they are feeling the impacts of rising costs.”

Past the pay and premium hikes, the new budget is tight enough the county has denied 22 “valid” staffing requests this year, Wilson said, for fear of disrupting its finances long term. And there would be no new major programs in 2023.

The one exception: Wilson’s budget would invest $2.7 million in a workforce pre-apprenticeship program to prepare workers for higher-paying jobs in transportation, manufacturing, clean energy, telecommunications and cybersecurity.

Maintenance overhauls for Salt Palace, trails and parks

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The mouth of Butterfield Canyon, at about 13100 South and 9000 West, one of several spots where Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is proposed an expansion of trail access in 2023.

Wilson’s budget includes the largest investment in deferred capital maintenance in county history. A centerpiece: a $5 million funding infusion for open space preservation countywide, part of wider steps, she said, to address climate change and bolster the environment.

“Vacant land, as you know, is being developed by the minute,” Wilson said, “and we need to act now to preserve opens spaces and those very spaces that make Salt Lake County a very unique and special place to live.”

To help with Utah’s ongoing megadrought and the dire shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, the county is adding the goal of a 5% reduction in water usage this year to the 13% decrease it achieved in 2021, the mayor said. It also is flipping parking strips to lower water usage, converting ballfields to synthetic turf and upgrading its irrigation systems.

Other one-time spending, Wilson said, would supercharge existing programs to expand trails, improve recreation facilities and parks, add travel options beyond the automobile and boost air quality. In this regard, she is calling for:

• Expanding maintenance along the Jordan River Parkway Trail and adding trail access in Rose, Yellow Fork and Butterfield canyons.

• Adding bike lanes and sidewalk improvements in places such as Herriman and Taylorsville for better pedestrian safety.

• Replacing the roof on the Salt Lake City Sports Complex at 645 S. Guardsman Way, and improving access for the disabled and making other renovations to some of its other recreation centers and parks.

• Overhauling much of the county’s sewage canal system, with new pumps, channel stabilization and clearing vegetation for improve flow.

• Upgrading the air conditioning at the Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City to move away from use of ozone-thinning freon gas.

Helping a tiny home village, animals and Centro Civico Mexicano

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Mav, a cat up for adoption at Salt Lake County Animal Services on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The county's latest budget plans would put money toward a new animal shelter.

Wilson’s budget would also chip in capital funds for new facilities and improvements overseen by other governments and nonprofits.

To help on the housing front, her plan would funnel $2 million to a tiny home village that is penciled in for Salt Lake City’s west side and run by the nonprofit Other Side Academy.

Leasing and zoning for the nascent village to be built near Redwood Road between Indiana Avenue and 500 South recently drew a green light from the Salt Lake City Council. Wilson called it “a place where 400 members of the homeless community will eventually be provided a safe, secure and warm place to live while in recovery.”

There is another $2 million in her budget for a grant to support renovations by the Utah AIDS Foundation to create a new health center. “There is currently no LGBTQ+ community health center in Utah,” Wilson noted.

Salt Lake County Animal Services would get $500,000 toward the first phase of a new facility and animal park.

Wilson also is proposing to match funds being raised by Centro Civico Mexicano, the state’s oldest organization serving Latino and Hispanic residents, for a new center to replace its 90-year-old existing facility located in Salt Lake City’s Depot District.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) A rally in 2017 at the Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake City.