Coronavirus leads to staff reduction in one of Utah’s biggest cities

(Taylor Stevens | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Jordan City Hall, pictured here on May 19, 2018.

Utah’s fourth largest city is facing an $8 million budget shortfall because of the coronavirus and is making staff cuts as a result.

West Jordan City Chief Administrative Officer Korban Lee sent a letter to employees last week notifying them that the shutdown of businesses and resulting dip in sales tax revenue because of the pandemic “has intensified what was already a very challenging financial situation for the city.”

The city’s budget now requires “a major restructuring and will need to include a reduction of personnel,” according to the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune this week.

West Jordan is asking employees to let it know by Monday whether they would be interested in voluntarily leaving city employment. Workers can choose between either a severance package of three months of wages and health insurance benefits or an equal COBRA health insurance bundle.

Tauni Barker, West Jordan’s director of community engagement, confirmed the staff reductions in an interview and said the city is hopeful enough people will voluntarily leave that government leaders won’t have to implement layoffs.

But “at this point, it’s really difficult to predict,” she said.

Barker also wasn’t sure how many of the city’s 487 full-time and 113 part-time employees would need to be cut, noting that that number would depend on the pay range of the employees who voluntarily leave. Someone who’s near retirement and might be at the top of their pay range would give the city more savings than a newer employee lower on the pay scale.

West Jordan Mayor Dirk Burton, who took office in January, said the decision to cut staff was a difficult one but one he felt was necessary. The city has implemented a hiring freeze and sought other ways to pinch pennies, he said, but the math ultimately didn’t add up.

“I need to make sure the city can weather through this storm and be able to be here on the other side and continue to provide the services our residents need” once the coronavirus has run its course, he said. “I know these are people’s lives we’re affecting, but we have to make this work.”

The city’s staff reduction comes as a record number of Utahns have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus. A report released Thursday shows unemployment claims in Utah have jumped for a fourth straight week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a record 33,076 state residents seeking jobless benefits. The previous week, some 28,560 Utahns filed, which was itself a record.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, other local governments in Utah are feeling the crunch as well.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told The Tribune on Thursday that the capital city is anticipating decreased revenues in the coming fiscal year but is “budgeting accordingly to protect our operations and our team.”

“We are working hard to keep all city jobs and not furlough,” she said in a statement. “I’ll be presenting the City Council on May 5 a conservative budget to keep our city strong through this unprecedented time.”

During a budget presentation to the County Council on Tuesday, Salt Lake County Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper said county revenues were projected to be down in 2020 to the tune of roughly $78.5 million, including an $11.7 million drop in operating revenues. To compensate, he said the county had hit the pause button on several capital projects and sought cuts in other areas.

And while he was still anticipating the need for additional trims this year, he said keeping staff employed would be a priority.

“Not only does that help Salt Lake County, it also helps the economy,” he said.