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S.L.'S TIMELY BUDGET NEWS RAISES DOUBTS OVER RULES

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As Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini learned this past week, luck can be an important ally when it comes to drafting a budget.

Corradini had expected to have to raise hotel room taxes by 1 percent. She had expected to have to confront Mountain Fuel in a potentially bruising and litigious fight to close a franchise-tax loophole and collect more money for the city. She had expected to have to close a gap of more than $1 million between expenditures and revenues.That was because Corradini and her top aides could only guess at what the city's revenues would be at the time they drafted the recommended budget. The mayor calls it budgeting with "blinders on."

But all those unpleasant expectations blissfully melted away as the city finally received its official property tax revenue numbers from Salt Lake County. It turned out a burgeoning local economy had grown to the point where Salt Lake City will receive $1 million more than expected.

The good news enabled Corradini to say "never mind" to angry innkeepers and fuel officials. A relieved City Council now can cancel plans for late-night sessions wrangling over budget problems.

Not every budget story has such a happy ending. Corradini could easily have found herself searching for more taxes to raise this week. Such are the budget challenges of every city and school district in Utah.

The whole process seems a little more frantic than necessary. State law requires all county assessors to complete their tax rolls by May 22. County auditors then have until June 8 to tell cities and school districts how much money they will get. Because the law also requires cities and school districts to operate on a fiscal budget that begins July 1, they have until June 22 at the latest to write tentative budgets that the public can peruse.

Confusion is the inevitable result. Counties have an even worse time. The law requires them to begin their budgets in January. They not only have to estimate revenues six months in advance; they then have to borrow against those estimates and hope enough money eventually comes in to cover the loans.

When state lawmakers convene early next year, they should try to find a better time schedule for all this. It shouldn't be too hard. If cities, school districts and counties started their fiscal years in September or October, they could take the time to make well-reasoned decisions, rather than rushing at the last minute.

They also could avoid needlessly having to talk about tax increases that turn out to be unneccesary. That would help many people sleep better.