Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson proposes tax hike in her first budget plan

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson makes a comment at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City Area office for the U.S. Census Bureau in this Oct. 1, 2019, file photo. In her first budget presentation as mayor on Tuesday, Wilson proposed a tax hike that would mean about a $33 increase to families with an average valued home.

In the first budget proposal of her administration, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson presented a “no frills” plan Tuesday without any “aggressive expansions” to county programs or initiatives.

The $1.4 billion budget instead aims to address “huge structural problems” facing the county — including $4 million off the top for the upcoming 2020 election and money to staff a new 3rd District Court the Legislature created but did not fully fund — through a property tax adjustment that would mean an increase of about $33 more per year for the average family.

Without this increase, “there would have been no choice but to close recreation centers, slim down critical programs for our aging populations and risk not maintaining mandatory services provided by our clerk, treasurer, sheriff and others,” Wilson argued during a speech at the County Government Center.

The Democratic mayor’s budget is subject to approval of the Republican-led County Council.

The 8.7% tax adjustment will mean an increase of about $11 for every $100,000 of value in a county resident’s home, Wilson noted, recognizing that amount “is significant” to families trying to send kids to college, “preparing for retirement or living on a fixed income.”

“I don’t want anyone to think I don’t understand that,” she said.

This proposal would mean an average boost on businesses of $61.09 per year and would bring in approximately $17.7 million in new revenues, according to Darrin Casper, the county’s chief financial officer.

Salt Lake County hasn’t raised property taxes since 2013, but it’s “straightforward” to see how the county got here, Wilson said. Over the past decade, home values in the county have nearly doubled, incomes are on the rise and population is growing steadily. In the meantime, the county hasn’t been able to capture any of that growth in its property tax rates.

While County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton thanked Wilson and her staff for putting “so much thought and effort” into the budget, she said she sees raising taxes as a last resort.

“As a budget hawk, I’ll be dialing in on this and trying to identify unnecessary expenditures to cut,” she said. "And I believe there’s always places that you can cut government budgets of unnecessary spending, so that’s going to be a priority for me as I look at whether or not we can look at raising taxes.”

Wilson noted that all departments were instructed to take a look at their needs to make cuts and that several made sacrifices. Significant cuts, according to the mayor’s spokeswoman, are proposed to 24-hour information technology help and to temporary staff budgets, meaning certain offices won’t hire nonpermanent help when needed.

“Some will still say ‘make cuts,’ but we are left with few choices and structural challenges,” she said during her presentation. “Should we say no to the state regarding the court? Should we refuse to run an election? Should we close a recreation or senior center? If so, which one? Do we risk retaining employees who provide valuable services to keep our facilities open because we do not pay workers enough to staff them?”

As part of her budget, Wilson said she conducted an assessment of pay for county employees and found that a living wage in Salt Lake County today is $12 an hour. Her budget offers an adjustment for employees making less than that and also proposes a 2.75% salary adjustment to full-time employees with no increase to health care costs.

Wilson was appointed to her role in January after winning an election among county Democratic Party delegates to replace two-term Mayor Ben McAdams, who was elected to the U.S. House. She already has declared her intention to run for a full four-year term in November 2020.

The mayor’s budget also proposes increasing resources to two county programs she said are “in critical need of more” in the coming year. She wants to adjust salaries to “stabilize pay for workers in our jail" with $3.5 million from the budget.

And, noting that one in three Utah families is impacted by domestic and sexual violence, the mayor also proposed increased funding to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases in the district attorney’s Special Victims Unit by 60%. The $763,568 for the unit would be used to hire six full-time employees.