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Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's budget proposes $25M extra for police, streets, housing

Salt Lake City Council chairwoman expects tax hike has support to pass

SALT LAKE CITY — In her third year, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski unveiled essentially two budget proposals on Monday: one with a sales tax increase and one without.

"To say this year's process was unique is an understatement," the mayor said.

One version would balance the city's roughly $275.5 million 2019 budget. But the other includes much more — with $25 million more in tax revenue from a proposed 0.5 percent sales tax hike to provide millions more for priorities high on city leaders' wish lists: streets, buses, police and affordable housing.

If the tax hike passes in a vote Tuesday — which City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said she expects it will — those who shop in Utah's capital city would pay an estimated 5 cents more for every $10 spent (minus food and big-ticket purchases like vehicles).

For that extra $25 million in tax revenue, Biskupski proposes spending it on the following priorities:

• More than $7.1 million for streets and infrastructure, including about $3.7 million for new roads and sidewalk projects and $2.9 million for a new maintenance crew.

• Nearly $6 million for public safety, including $2.2 million for 27 more police officers and nearly $2.6 million for an overall police salary and benefit increase.

• Nearly $5.3 million to implement the city's Transit Master Plan. That includes nearly $2.5 million to create "high frequency" Utah Transit Authority bus routes — with Sunday service — on streets including 900 South, 200 South, 2100 South, 600 North and possibly 1000 North.

• More than $4.1 million for affordable housing initiatives, including $2.1 million to provide financing and incentives for developers to include affordable housing in mixed-income developments and more than $656,000 for rent assistance, and hundreds of thousands more for other various housing programs.

The proposal, coined "Funding Our Future," is an opportunity for Salt Lake City to "control its own destiny," Biskupski said.

"If passed by the council, Funding Our Future will allow Salt Lake City to do what many cities across the country have been able to accomplish — that is to implement strategic plans quickly, through a dedicated funding source," Biskupski said.

The biggest chunk of the tax revenue would go to infrastructure, meant to rebuild the "worst of the city's roads," the mayor said, noting that two-thirds of the city's roads were rated poor or failing in a recent city study.

The new maintenance crew would allow the city to maintain 155 lane miles of roadway annually, which would double the amount the city maintains today, the mayor said.

For buses, Biskupski said the city would contract with UTA for better Monday through Saturday frequency, with hours from 5 a.m. to midnight as well as "at long last, Sunday service."

Additionally, Biskupski would fund a list of other transit programs, including a "home-to-transit" program that would cover ride share-type services to residents who live more than a quarter of a mile from a 15-minute frequency bus route, as well as a "work-to-transit" program that would work with businesses in west-side Salt Lake City to fund a similar type shuttle service for employees in those areas.

As for police, the City Council last year approved a one-time budget adjustment to hire 50 police officers — but Biskupski's 2019 proposal would only fund 27 officers.

Councilman Charlie Luke, who pushed for the 50 officers, said Monday he is "concerned" to see only 27 officers funded, so he plans on discussing it in Tuesday's council meeting.

"I think they're going to have to explain why is it the police department feels 27 is sufficient," Luke said, worried that in order to fully fund them the city may have to cut from other spending priorities.

Biskupski told reporters that over the years "dollars will ebb and flow" but stay in the proposed priority areas, and the 27 officers are just "our first bite at that apple."

"We're confident over the next two years we can hire all 50, but these things take time," Biskupski said.

The mayor's budget proposal also includes about $2 million in departmental spending cuts — including the elimination of vacant positions — which were offset by about $1.7 million more from a 7 percent rise in employee health insurance costs. It also includes a 3 percent salary adjustment for all employees (including $3.4 million in the general fund and $2.13 million in sales tax proposal).

The mayor's budget recommendation comes the day before the Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to vote on the sales tax hike. The council was originally scheduled to vote two weeks ago but delayed the decision amid concerns from the downtown business community, which had questions about a rushed timeline and wanted more specifics on how the revenue would be spent.

But Monday, Mendenhall said she expects there's support on the council to pass the tax hike.

"The proposals the mayor has referenced are quite close to what the council has been discussing, and the clarity of her budget proposal and how the money would be administratively directed gives me confidence about moving ahead with our vote tomorrow," Mendenhall said, applauding Biskupski's administration for a "collaborative process."

Concerns from business leaders had also been quelled. Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, said Monday that several business leaders met with Biskupski and Mendenhall the previous week to resolve concerns.

"We appreciate the dialogue and have committed to continuing to work with city leaders to make sure any new funds go to address critical needs," Mathis said.

As of Monday, about 68 percent of respondents to the city's Funding Our Future online survey supported the sales tax hike, according to Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas.

Biskupski proposed the half-penny sales tax hike in her State of the City address in January, paired with an $87 million bond for transportation projects. The City Council is also expected later this year to decide whether to place the bond on the ballot this November. That bond would replace two bonds retiring in mid-2019 and add an estimated $5 per household per year.

The sales tax hike, which will collect about $33 million annually after its first partial year of collecting revenue, was made possible by the Utah Legislature, which included the tax hike option in the prison relocation bill passed in 2015 meant to offset the impact of the prison.

At the time, then-candidate Biskupski called the tax hike "deplorable" and accused former Mayor Ralph Becker of working a "backroom" deal with legislators to get it included in the bill. Since then, Biskupski has said the city must "make good of that backroom deal."

"We truly have a rare opportunity to control our own destiny," Biskupski said Monday.

If adopted, the tax hike will "place a great responsibility on me, the council and future leaders," she added. "One which we take seriously."

To hold city leaders accountable, Biskupski said in the coming days the city will launch the first version of an online tracking dashboard so the public can watch the priorities the tax revenue would fund and any future changes.

Mendenhall has also previously discussed the possibility of solidifying some of the tax revenue for infrastructure projects by eventually bonding with the tax money, but Biskupski said she hasn't had a chance to meet with council members to discuss that possibility.

The Salt Lake City Council is expected to vote on the tax hike during its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday at the Salt Lake City-County Building, 451 S. State.