Salt Lake County mayor seeks $15 minimum wage for county employees

Jenny Wilson’s budget includes some federal coronavirus aid. It doesn’t call for a tax increase or borrowing. Some GOP council members want a tax cut.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Full-time Salt Lake County employees would earn at least $15 an hour under Mayor Jenny Wilson’s new budget proposal.

And she’s seeking $2 million to move temporary employees, who mainly work in the parks and recreation areas, closer to that same living-wage goal.

Her plan is to ensure everyone employed by the county earns at least $15 an hour by 2024.

“We know that some of our temporary staff are feeding their kids. They are reliant on their pay with us,” Wilson said. “I think that it’s antiquated to be behind what is a fair wage for all.”

The mayor is seeking a 2% pay increase for all county employees with additional merit raises on top of that. She wants even bigger boosts for sheriff’s employees, prosecutors and public defense attorneys in her spending plan released Thursday. The proposal relies on Utah’s robust economic growth and federal coronavirus relief money. The county, like many governments, is finding it challenging to fill openings and keep employees from being recruited to higher-paying places.

Wilson’s $1.5 billion budget doesn’t include any new borrowing, and it doesn’t rely on any tax increase. The Democratic mayor’s proposal is a starting point, kicking off weeks of budget discussions and an eventual vote from the Republican-led County Council.

That council includes three newer GOP members — David Alvord, Dea Theodore and Laurie Stringham — who have expressed an interest in providing a tax cut. Republicans hold a 6-3 advantage on the council.

Wilson is not proposing a cut and did not address that idea in her presentation before the council Thursday.

Rather, she focused on investments in the Salt Lake County Health Department, using federal dollars to expand its vaccine outreach. She wants to fund a trail master plan, which would include new paths into the west range of the Oquirrh Mountains.

She would like to remodel a portion of the county jail to allow people who were incarcerated a chance to gather themselves when they are released. This area would be staffed by caseworkers, and provide a place to charge a cellphone and get a hot drink.

“This will connect them to resources,” Wilson said, “with the goal of keeping them from returning to jail.”

She also touted efforts to be more water conscious, in light of the ongoing drought. Her budget would provide money for xeriscaping at the Bingham Creek Library, nonculinary water for the Riverbend Golf Course, and the start of more efficient irrigation systems at county parks.

“We simply cannot continue to nourish lawns and lush landscapes,” she said, “with water intended for human drinking.”

The mayor proposes to use about $64 million of the county’s $226 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, passed by Congress, to stimulate an economy hit hard by the pandemic. The biggest chunks would support the health department with temporary employees and funnel $20 million into the county’s housing trust fund.

She already had announced a plan to give each county employee up to $500 based on the worker’s vaccination status. That program costs $3.5 million of those rescue plan funds.

The rest of that federal money would be allocated in the coming years. The county has until 2024 to spend it.

The county’s chief financial officer, Darrin Casper, said in the past year, the county has seen $28.9 million in new money, largely from tax collections. This is after $26 million in growth the previous year. He described that 2020 increase as a bounce back from the coronavirus. This year, he said, the new money is different.

“This represents economic strength,” he said. “Our economy is absolutely cranking along right now.”