South Salt Lake mayor proposes 31% tax increase to raise pay for firefighters, police

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) 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.

South Salt Lake homeowners may see an additional $71 per year on their future property tax bills ― a 31% increase ― under a budget proposal Mayor Cherie Wood made to the City Council on Wednesday.

The city hasn’t raised its property taxes in more than a decade but is considering the move as a way to fund a 15% wage increase for its firefighters and police officers, who say their pay is among the lowest across the Wasatch Front and are losing experienced officers as a result.

“I feel that the mayor is right in line or rather right on target with her proposal,” Matthew Oehler, president of South Salt Lake Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. “The concern that I have is whether or not the City Council is going to support it. Several City Council members have advocated that they will not support any kind of a tax increase. But my question is, ‘Who operates their household off of a 10-year-old budget?’”

The City Council and administration have expressed interest in investing in the same three areas in the upcoming budget ― public safety, economic development and stormwater ― but have disagreed about the best way to get there.

Last month, a majority of the City Council made the unusual move of crafting a series of demands for the mayor as she prepared her budget, proposing in a one-page letter that her budget be cut nearly in half to fund those priorities.

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, and noted that their proposal was “not even feasible” if the city wanted to keep running its core functions.

Wood said Wednesday that her proposal keeps the administration and council’s shared commitments in mind ― “without reducing critical services to our businesses and residents, inviting unnecessary risk exposure and impacting employee morale.”

Her tentative budget, which is now subject to changes from the City Council, did not address the budget letter she had received from the council for three reasons, Wood said.

First, she argued that their proposal violated state code in interfering with “my duty to keep the peace, enforce the laws, and execute the policies adopted by the council.” She also argued that the letter, crafted by a majority of the council, violated the spirit of the Open and Public Meetings Act because it was not created in a public meeting.

Third, she said an independent adverse impact analysis by the Employers’ Council found the cuts could put the city at “significant risk for potential disparate impact claims by a protected class,” since four of the five positions that would not be funded are currently filled by women. “The demand to make dramatic cuts to Administration [which is largely female] to fund increases for Police and Fire [which are largely male]” could be problematic, she said.

The majority of the council has been resistant to imposing a property tax increase, and Council Chairman Ben Pender said he believes there are areas the council could look at to make cuts before going that route.

“We want to look at things that we can maybe cut back on before we start reaching out to the community and the businesses to help foot the bill,” he said Thursday. “Not saying we won’t go down that road, but we want to evaluate our own house first before we start reaching out for money and tax increases from the community.”

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

Kyle Kershaw, the city’s finance director, noted that sales tax and other revenues were up over the last year, which will help the city invest further in stormwater, but said that the property tax increase is the best way to fund public safety into the future.

“It wasn’t done lightly,” he told the council. “As has been mentioned, we’ve been able to avoid this since 2006, and it wasn’t done lightly or it wasn’t done without a lot of thought and deliberation that what we were looking for was a dedicated source of revenue that could be sustained.”

The mayor’s property tax proposal would bring in an estimated $1.6 million and would bring firefighter and police pay closer in line with nearby agencies.

In her budget proposal on Tuesday, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski also recommended an increase in police salary. She proposed a 2% salary increase for officers who aren’t scheduled to receive a step increase negotiated as part of their overall contract, as well as a 2% increase in starting wages and a 6% step increase for officers at their 12-year mark.

The South Salt Lake City Council set a public hearing for Wood’s proposed budget on June 5.