The Salt Lake City Council Tuesday unanimously endorsed nearly doubling a police department request for 27 new officers, taking the number up to 50. But paying for them could mean a tax increase next year.
The new hires would bring the force to just over 500 police, not including a “float” of 20 more positions to cover routine fluctuations in staffing. The council will vote formally on the hires next week, but it gave its preliminary approval Tuesday, with lawmakers citing strained police staffing and resources as well as a widespread perception among residents that the city is less safe.
“We need to make this adjustment right now,” said Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall. “We have such a fragile hold on the feeling of safety in our neighborhoods in so many parts of our city.”
But lawmakers candidly acknowledged that the city doesn’t have the money for the new officers and likely would raise taxes to pay for them. The 50 additional officers would cost the city nearly $10 million over this fiscal year and the next, through June 2019.
“We don’t have the revenue within the city to fund that increase,” said council Vice Chairman Charlie Luke. “We’re going to have to figure out where exactly that revenue is going to come from. I’m thinking it’s going to be a tax increase. What that tax increase is, I think that’s what we’re going to have to figure out.”
The council’s move surprised Police Chief Mike Brown.
“Merry Christmas, I guess,” council Chairman Stan Penfold told Brown. “This is long overdue.”
“I didn’t see that coming,” Brown said later. The department, he said, has consistently “asked for what we’ve needed. We come with a pretty hefty price, so we don’t try to ever overask. But I really do feel that for many years we’ve tried to do more with less.”
The department had sought the new officers in the wake of Operation Rio Grande, a targeted enforcement initiative begun in August to address crime around the Road Home homeless shelter downtown. The operation has diverted police personnel and resources from other areas of the city and highlighted longer-term, endemic staffing shortages within the department.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office gave measured support to the council’s vote Tuesday night, saying the administration needed more details.
“The council, mayor’s office and the Police Department all share a common desire to focus on public safety,” said Matt Rojas, the mayor’s spokesman. “The other thing they share is fiscal responsibility. We don’t expect the council going forward with an unfunded mandate. I think you saw that today. They still have some questions on how they’re going to pay for it.”