South Salt Lake City Council budget demands might lead to employee layoffs and more storm water money

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood makes a few comments at the celebration of the new double-track rail line for the S-Line Sugar House Streetcar, Friday, April 5, 2019.

Members of the South Salt Lake City Council in recent weeks made the unusual move of crafting a series of demands for Mayor Cherie Wood as she prepares the city’s annual budget for their consideration.

They want a combined $1 million taken from the administration’s $2.2 million budget and put toward storm water and economic development, as well as to increase compensation for public safety officials such as fire and police. They’re also declining to fund salaries for department heads “who have not yet come before us for advice and consent” — including the fire department chief and city attorney.

“We realize and fully expect some of these departments, especially Administration, will possibly see a reduction in staffing to comply with this proposed budget outline,” they conclude. “We believe it is in the best interests of the residents to provide the services we require at the most efficient level possible and feel the above numbers reflect that.”

The one-page letter, dated April 3, was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request. It bears the signature of most but not all of the seven City Council members, including Chairman Ben Pender and Vice Chairman Shane Siwik.

In an undated response to the council’s letter, the mayor thanked the members for “beginning to think about our City needs as we approach this important budget season” and agreed with their assessment of the city’s priorities.

“It's imperative that we address how to fund these needs in ways that don't reduce other important services to residents, a goal I hope Council Members share,” she wrote. “I look forward to working through this important process with you.”

The mayor is expected to present her 2019-2020 budget proposal to the council May 8.

Pender told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview that the council viewed the letter as “kind of a wish list” for city funding — something he acknowledged the body hasn’t done before, at least in his four years of service.

“This was something kind of unique this year that we kind of wanted to get a head start on and give the administration time to look at those things that we’re wanting,” he said.

Wood said council members are typically involved in the budget process in a more collaborative way. And while she agrees with their priorities, that doesn’t mean she agrees with their proposed implementation, which she called “arbitrary” and maybe even “political.”

The administration’s budget provides funding to departments imperative for the city’s functioning, like payroll, the city recorder’s office and human resources, she said.

“It’s really not even feasible to provide support to all the city departments that are being slashed in half,” she said. “So in my opinion, it’s a really simplistic proposal for a very complex issue that my staff and I have put a lot of time into trying to find potential solutions to.”

The city faces a number of challenges in forming its annual budget, Wood said. South Salt Lake’s property tax rate hasn’t increased since 2006, she said, and a total 32% of properties in the city are exempt from those taxes, such as county buildings like the Oxbow Jail.

Still, the mayor said she’s confident about her proposal, which has been in the works since early January.

“I’ll be very transparent about why I proposed what I proposed,” she said.

Pender contends that the mayor has skirted the council’s responsibility to give “advice and consent” for department heads by calling them managers, possibly in an effort to avoid making them come before the council for consideration.

“If you’re going to have different positions that are department head positions, you need to follow all of the rules and go through what’s required to do versus just making them managers to avoid having to bring them forward,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s circumventing the system.”

Wood said it’s up to the council to put items on meeting agendas and that Pender has told her in the past she shouldn’t bring certain people forward because she didn’t have the votes to approve them. Even so, she argues that city code doesn’t require her to bring these positions to the council.

“All of these individuals that currently fill roles similar to the titles that are named in the letter are merit positions and don’t require advice and consent,” she said.

Ray deWolfe, an at-large councilman, was one of three members whose name was not included on the council’s recent letter — which he says is because they found out about it at the April 3 council meeting.

And while he said he agrees with the budget priorities his colleagues outlined, he said he wouldn’t have signed it even if he had known about it because he doesn’t agree with the process the letter went through or its specific line-item proposals.

“We agree on a lot of things, but for some reason we have a hard time coming to the same approach on how to move forward with things,” he said of both the council and administration. “But what we’re trying to do is make South Salt Lake the best possible place to live, work and play and our role is bigger than ourselves. So we just need to stop with the antics and start working together.”