Salt Lake County mayor candidates battle over pandemic response, spending and future recovery

Utahns receive their ballots this week, and the highest profile local race in the Salt Lake area is for the office of county mayor, where first-term incumbent Jenny Wilson faces Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs.

For Wilson, a Democrat, this will be her first time running for mayor in a general election.

Early last year, Democratic Party delegates elected her to her current position after Ben McAdams left office to serve in Congress.

Still, Wilson is no stranger to campaigning. In 2004, she became the first woman elected to the Salt Lake County Council and successfully ran again for an at-large seat in 2014. In 2018, she ran an unsuccessful bid against Mitt Romney for the U.S. Senate.

Although she took office in 2019, much of Wilson’s time as mayor has largely been defined by her work to counter the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been a challenging year. As much as it’s been a challenge for me, it’s been challenging for every one of us,” Wilson said. "Better days are ahead. This is not the time to hand the baton off to another mayor.”

Staggs, a Republican, is a businessman and has served as the mayor of Riverton since 2018 after knocking off his three-term predecessor, Bill Applegarth. Prior to that he served a term as a Riverton City Council member.

Staggs declared his bid for county mayor after Wilson and the County Council approved both the Olympia Hills development and a property tax hike last year.

He said he intends to prioritize smart and sustainable growth, empowering communities and fiscal responsibility.

“This position requires someone with experience, with real-world business experience,” Staggs said. “My opponent does not have that. She is a lifelong bureaucrat.”

Pandemic response

Salt Lake County was the first in Utah to implement a mask mandate, which Wilson touted as the cause for a corresponding decline in COVID-19 cases over the summer.

“It’s important that a county mayor be wiling to make tough decisions. I proved that through the mask mandate and I think that paid off,” Wilson said.

But the county is now experiencing a second wave of infections worst than the first, second only to Utah County, which Staggs blamed on the mayor’s office.

“This current administration has really missed the mark with respect to their COVID management,” Staggs said. “We can protect lives and livelihoods, but we need a plan. My opponent doesn’t have one outside of mask wearing, which I think is completely wrong.”

Staggs has previously dodged the question of whether he supports a mask mandate, but he told The Salt Lake Tribune he supports the current rule.

“I think it’s a common-sense measure,” he said. “But I think we’re focusing too much on ‘mask mandate’ or ‘no mask mandate.’ The focus needs to be on testing.”

More money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act should go to improving testing in the county, Staggs said. He advocated for rapid saliva tests as well as creating a mobile app that would help residents schedule appointments and track results.

Growing groups of Utah residents are skeptical of coronavirus tests or unwilling to get them, however, citing mistrust of government and fears of shutting down schools after a positive result. The state can test 10,000 people each day but routinely sees below-capacity counts of people opting to get swabbed. Staggs said the reluctance was largely due to the county’s cumbersome process.

“For crying out loud, former Gov. Jon Huntsman had to get tested and it was a disaster,” Staggs said. “It took days and days to get results.”

Wilson called the trend of people refusing to get tests an “extreme concern,” but said testing is on the rise in Salt Lake County.

“Testing is now a political issue and that’s unfortunate,” Wilson said. “People have suffered needlessly. I feel we need to get beyond November and have political change.”

Wilson defended her pandemic response despite the recent surge in cases, saying her administration came together early and formed a response team over the winter, before cases began rising in Utah.

“We had to hustle and be really, really aggressive to get appropriate [personal protective equipment] given the competition worldwide,” Wilson said. “I think we did things incredibly well.”

Economic recovery

Wilson pointed to the county’s Small Business Impact Grant program as one of her team’s most most successful economic responses to the pandemic. The initiative has funneled $40 million in CARES funding to business owners struggling from mandated closures and customer traffic that has slowed to a crawl due to the pandemic.

“It was a herculean effort,” Wilson said. “We’re talking about hundreds of businesses” that applied and were reviewed by county staff.

Although the county budget didn’t see the sales tax hits it was anticipating over the summer, Wilson said many small businesses are struggling, especially in the hospitality, arts and tourism sectors. She said she’s working on safely reopening county venues like theaters and the Salt Palace Convention Center. The county also moved $450,000 in CARES funds to the Nourish to Flourish program to help local restaurants.

Staggs' economic recovery plan includes launching a “buy local, stay local” campaign, encouraging county residents to plan “staycations” and support local travel and restaurant businesses. He also intends to build trails, arts and transportation projects, particularly in the southwest section of the county, to create jobs and put more money back in the local economy.

“We have a lot of growth issues here. A big reason why I entered the race was to handle growth,” Staggs said. “Investing in infrastructure is key.”

He criticized the mayor for dragging her feet on spending federal dollars when they’re desperately needed throughout the county.

“They received over $203 million in CARES Act funding months and months ago and they’re still sitting on $103 million of it,” Staggs said.

Congress mandated that CARES funds must be spent by Dec. 30. The mayor’s administration reported Tuesday that as of Sept. 30, it had spent about $99.6 million on pandemic-related costs.

Wilson said she has earmarked another $80 million for other programs that hasn’t been spent yet. The county also needs to keep funds in reserve, Wilson said, to cover future contact tracing, quarantining and eventual administration of the coronavirus vaccine.

“We know that’s going to be very expensive,” Wilson said.

Budget and spending

Throughout his campaign, Staggs has been a vocal critic of the county’s “wasteful” spending. The candidate has claimed the county budget inflated by 50% since 2014.

But Wilson said budgets are complex and Staggs has misrepresented the facts. In 2014, the State Auditor required the county to start reporting pass-through revenue in their budget for redevelopment agency and transportation taxes. That caused the numbers to jump. She said large capital improvement projects can also lead to budget increases, even though the revenue isn’t necessarily coming from taxpayers.

“Either Trent Staggs doesn’t understand budgets or he thinks this is something he can use to snooker the public,” Wilson said.

Staggs turned to the county’s general fund, rather than the broader $1.5 billion budget, calling it “a better barometer of fiscal responsibility and restraint.” General fund expenses have grown from $272 million in 2014 to $432 million in 2020.

One of his first reforms he promised will be to the general fund’s first line item — the mayor’s administration.

“The county mayor’s office has ballooned over the last few years,” Staggs said. “I’ve been told by many county employees I’ve talked to that it’s like an imperial army up there.”

The mayor’s administration expenditures grew from $1.7 million in 2014 to $6.6 million in the most recent budget, which was adjusted to make pandemic cuts. Staggs' campaign has criticized the mayor for employing six highly paid deputy mayors and associate deputy mayors. If elected, Staggs said he’d “probably” only appoint one or two deputies.

“It would definitely be less than six,” he said.

Wilson countered that it took a team of highly qualified experts to help oversee a budget of more than $1 billion, an army of 7,000 county employees and complex day-to-day operations that include transportation planning, parks and recreation, mental health services and building maintenance, all the while managing public health during a deadly pandemic.

“If you look at other cities, cities that are much smaller, they’re paying many of their people more,” Wilson said. Her campaign provided a spreadsheet of Riverton employees receiving similar compensation to Wilson’s deputies.

“I think this is yet another false narrative and it’s unfortunate,” Wilson said. “I’m proud of every person who reports to me.”