Salt Lake County taxpayers will find 2001 an expensive year, thanks to a set of decisions made this week by departing county commissioners — two of whom are leaving with golden parachutes.

The legacy of Republicans Mark Shurtleff, Brent Overson and Mary Callaghan, soon to be replaced by a county council, includes a multimillion-dollar budget increase and a property-tax hike of at least $125 annually for tens of thousands of residents in unincorporated areas of the county, along with considerable severance packages for Shurtleff and Callaghan. Overson has completed his four-year term, so he didn't ask for severance pay.

Callaghan said almost nothing at Wednesday's County Commission meeting, as the panel approved a payment of $279,500 for her unexpired term of office. In January she'll be paid the $252,000 salary she would have earned if voters hadn't approved a new form of government that eliminated her position. She'll also receive $27,000 for her retirement fund. The commissioner did not return Deseret News phone calls seeking comment.

Shurtleff is taking a relatively small amount — $25,000 — which he calls the difference between his commissioner's salary and that of his new job as Utah attorney general. Shurtleff is taking a pay cut as he moves to the Capitol; as attorney general he'll earn $81,300 after earning $93,072 as commissioner. He is, however, up for a raise to $90,500 in fiscal 2002 if lawmakers follow a recommendation by the Executive and Judicial Compensation Commission.

"My family has been deeply in debt" and needs the severance pay, Shurtleff said," but "I don't believe I'm entitled to the full salary" that Callaghan will collect.

Paying more than $300,000 to the outgoing commissioners is "sad, in light of the record they have," said Claire Geddes, director of Utah Legislative Watch. "If they were CEOs, they wouldn't be getting big bonuses. The way they've run the county is outrageous. And the sad part is that they talk about how they don't have enough money."

Overall, the county budget will increase by $28 million, to $665.2 million, according to County Auditor Craig Sorensen. To fund that hike, many county homeowners can expect a property-tax increase of up to $125 per year.

"This is the biggest crisis I've seen," said Sorensen, who has been in office for 22 years. "We're spending more than we've ever spent before, but we're not matching revenues with expenditures."

The county's taxpayers will soon be called upon to shore up those revenues.

On a $171,000 home — the average value in Salt Lake County — residents can now plan on paying $222.33 into the county's general fund, $71.85 into the library fund, and $36.96 into the bond debt service fund. Homeowners on the unincorporated land that covers about 55 percent of Salt Lake County will pay another $280.93 into the municipal-type services fund.

Residents of Salt Lake City and Murray have their own city libraries, so they're the exceptions who won't pay into the countywide library fund. Their property taxes, however, will probably seem high enough anyway, with the 10 percent hike in the general fund payment.

Salt Lake County's tentative 2001 budget hits unincorporated-county homeowners hardest, raising their county taxes from $486.99 in 2000 to $612.07 next year. Those residents' payments into the municipal-type services fund alone will increase 42.2 percent. That fund, which provides fire protection, law enforcement and other services to people outside city limits, will swell to nearly $28.7 million, up from $19.7 million. One of the primary culprits: Salt Lake County Sheriff's investigative services, the costs of which are being moved from the general fund to the municipal-type services fund.

Sheriff Aaron Kennard was dismayed to see the county's plans to move investigative services out of the general fund and reduce its budget. A decrease of nearly $4 million is proposed, and that will necessitate staff cuts, Kennard said.

"I'm looking at 45 positions I may have to eliminate," he said. "If you're going to raise taxes, why don't you keep law enforcement at the same level?"

The tax rate hikes are due to increased funding for the county jail, said commission staff counsel Alan Dayton. The County Commission is proposing an approximate $3.3 million hike in the jail's budget, raising it from $42.9 million to $46.2 million in 2001. "The biggest expense in Salt Lake County is public safety," Dayton said. "And when people come to the public hearing (on the proposed budget), they say, 'Cut anything but that.' If they have to, they'd rather shut down libraries."

The proposed 2001 budget is available to the public in the Commission Clerk's office at the County Government Center, 2001 S. State. A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 18 in the Commission Chambers at the Government Center. Shurtleff, Callaghan and Overson are scheduled to approve the 2001 budget on Dec. 20, a week and a half before they leave office.

County Mayor-elect Nancy Workman and most of the new County Council members have been attending budget workshops for several weeks, acquainting themselves with the financing of the county's programs, which range from Aging Services, flood control and the Salt Palace to libraries, parks and the Hansen Planetarium. They've watched as the commission proposed a 0.9 percent cut in the county fire department's budget.

The Salt Lake County Fire Department's budget is expected to be cut by $1.2 million, Capt. Jay Ziolkowski said. But no layoffs are anticipated. In a worst-case scenario, the department won't be able to fill positions left open by retirements or resignations, he said. But the department may be forced to delay the purchase of a needed fire truck and to eliminate its seasonal wildlands fire unit. County firefighters would continue to fight wildfires in the summer, Ziolkowski said, but they would no longer have a specialized unit to assist them. The department hopes to have a plan worked out within a week.

Parks and recreational facilities may also face deep cuts in their funding. The Jordan River Parkway's maintenance fund was $1.5 million in 2000; it could go to $200,000 next year. Funding for several recreation centers, including Magna Recreation Center and the West Valley, Big Cottonwood and Fairmont swimming pools would be drastically reduced, as would the Murray Ice Center and the Salt Lake Central City Senior Center. The question of keeping the facilities open could arise.

Chalk up $5 million of the current budget crunch to a tax refund commissioners voted to give Alliant Tech. The refund to the huge rocket-booster plant near West Valley City is a compromise — the contractor claimed the county owed it $11 million plus interest, saying assessors had overestimated the property's value from 1995 to 1999.

Budget cuts and tax increases are considered "tentative" now, said Sorensen. And those who speak at the Dec. 18 public hearing could have an impact on the County Commission's funding decisions.


Contributing: Pat Reavy

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com