Salt Lake City Council approves half-penny sales-tax hike to bolster police, roads; 7.35% rate begins in October

Salt Lake City Council members on Tuesday unanimously authorized a half-percent increase in the city’s sales tax to fund road repair, affordable-housing incentives, expanded bus service and more police, but they did so amid late-breaking concerns over how the new money would be distributed to those priorities.

The uncertainty prompted one councilman to abstain in protest from a preliminary straw poll vote on the tax increase, though he later joined his colleagues to formally approve it.

The vote means city sales tax will increase from 6.85 percent to 7.35 percent in October, netting the city an additional $25 million in the first partial year of collection and about $33 million annually thereafter. Groceries and five categories of big ticket items — cars, boats, RVs, trailers, modular homes and trailers — would be exempt. The increase amounts to a nickel for each $10 spent.

The vote came after long discussion at the council’s afternoon work session that saw lawmakers dig into the details of revenue allocations based on the proposed 2018-19 city budget Mayor Jackie Biskupski released Monday. The mayor’s proposal for the first time attached firm spending numbers to the four priority areas — housing, transit, roads and public safety — for the fiscal year that starts in July.

The mayor’s recommendations, which the council will weigh as part of its normal budget-making process over the coming weeks, diverged from how the tax plan has been outlined to residents and other stakeholders over nearly two months of outreach by the city to garner support for the plan.

For example, the city, based on a council vote in the fall, proposed to spend $12 million annually to hire 50 new police officers, related staff and vehicles. For reasons mostly of timing, the mayor’s plan pares those numbers back and proposes a phased-in approach to hiring the new police, starting initially with the 27 officers the department initially sought.

The decision is driven both by how many officers the department says it needs to staff the citywide neighborhood policing beats that are much favored by residents, and by how many officers it can actually hire, and how quickly.

Assistant Police Chief Tim Doubt told the council Tuesday that the department has seven candidates enrolled in the next training class and potentially as few as 12 in the class after that.

“If you could hire 50 people today, it sounds like you would, but you have a [training] class of seven, potentially a class of hopefully 12 in the fall,” Councilwoman Amy Fowler said to the chief.

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said to Doubt: “We’re trying to give you 50 officers, and we’re asking you to give us a leg to stand on, and we don’t have one. If the money’s here today, it may not be here next year.”

That change was “disingenuous” and a “bait and switch” compared to how the sales tax plan has been marketed to residents, said Councilman Charlie Luke, who abstained from the council’s initial, informal vote on the tax hike.

“The reality is we have one opportunity to increase the sales tax,” Luke said. “That money is going to be spent as soon as it starts coming in. Thinking the city is going to be able and go back next year and say, ‘Oh, now we need the officers’ … is not realistic.”

Councilman Derek Kitchen, who voted for the 50-officer increase in the fall, said the city has gathered a lot of information since that vote, including a measured citywide drop in crime, and he said he was “not opposed to a phased approach” as outlined by the mayor.

“I don’t know if I were to have that vote again that I would stick to my guns on 50” officers, he said.

Deputy Chief of Staff David Litvack told the council that the department faced “practical challenges” on hiring, and that phasing them in allowed the department to complete an ongoing staffing study to determine the optimal number.

Mayoral spokesman Matt Rojas later added that the mayor and the department “consider the council’s goal of 50 new officers a good goal” and “want to take advantage of an opportunity to gather more data on our overall needs while we continue to recruit and train new officers.”

The mayor’s plan for the sales revenue proposes $6 million for public safety, $7.1 million for road repairs, $4.1 million affordable-housing assistance, and $5.3 million for expanded bus service, with the remaining $2.5 million going into reserve. Council members also heard Monday about potential higher costs for the preferred transit option, but they dialed back their concern about specifics amid their broad support for the tax hike and the budget discussions that are to come.

“There’s absolutely no question about the need,” Mendenhall said. “We don’t lose any leverage because we decide to pass the sales tax, and we haven’t said yet who’s getting the money.”