SOUTH SALT LAKE — The clock is ticking, but South Salt Lake elected leaders are continuing to clash over the budget.
And the city's police and firefighters are caught in the middle.
The latest rift between the South Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Cherie Wood is expected to come to a head this week, when the City Council is expected to vote on its version of a balanced budget — likely without the proposed 31 percent property tax hike the mayor proposed last month to give first responders a substantial pay raise.
Rather, a narrow majority of the City Council has worked to avoid a tax hike at all costs, bringing forward a proposal to snip funds from a variety of city departments including economic development, parking enforcement and programs under the mayor's administration to give police and firefighters the pay bump.
But Wood is already fighting the City Council's approach, saying the budget plan "slashes" key services, does nothing to look to the future on infrastructure issues, and "kicks the can down the road" by using one-time money for police and fire pay raises, putting the city in an even worse position next year.
By law, South Salt Lake must pass a balanced budget by the end of the month.
Like other Utah cities, South Salt Lake has been struggling to retain police and firefighters as other agencies have offered more competitive pay. A recent Unified Police Department salary assessment indicated South Salt Lake officers are paid about 15 percent less than other agencies.
The council is divided too. Of the seven-member body, four members — who recently sent a letter to Wood asking she cut $1 million from her own administrative budget to pay for the police pay raises — are still reluctant to raise taxes, opting instead to make ends meet another way.
That's even though the three-member minority of the council put their support behind a "hybrid" compromise. Councilman Ray DeWolfe proposed the city raise taxes by 15.5 percent and keep some of the cuts, but not all, to offset the costs of the police and fire pay bumps.
"Taxes are inevitable. It's not popular to raise taxes," DeWolfe said. "But the unfortunate reality is if we don't start making tiny steps now, we're going to be facing bigger problems."
Depending on what happens Wednesday, the clash could open the city up to an unprecedented situation: a possible veto from Wood. Or the issue could be punted to next year, when the makeup of the council may change.
"There are so many different scenarios that could play out," Wood said Monday, explaining that she'll consider her next steps depending on the outcome of Wednesday's City Council vote.
"This has probably been one of the most unique budgets that I've dealt with in the 10 years I've been in office," the mayor added.
The council over the last two weeks has been drilling down on a list of cuts to the city's budget to dodge Wood's proposed 31 percent, $1.6 million, property tax hike — which would cost the average South Salt Lake homeowner an additional $71 per year on their property tax bill.
The council's cuts — totaling $1.3 million — would affect parking enforcement and reduce money for streets, and "doesn't begin to solve serious infrastructure challenges" like the city's storm water system, Wood told the council last week.
"These problems aren't going away," Wood said. "They are just getting more costly for our residents. When is the City Council planning on addressing them?"
"South Salt Lake has been deferring investment in significant areas for years," the mayor added. "This strategy of kicking the can down the road will not work. And worse, it will result in our residents becoming overburdened with extraordinary tax and fee increases all at one time."
Council Vice Chairman Shane Siwik said the four-member majority of the council is "adamant against a property tax increase because we found the money" without having to raise taxes.
To Wood's complaint that the council would be punting the issue for another year, Siwik said "that's why we have budgets every year."
"For this year it works. Next year we'll have to look at it again," he said. "Why raise taxes this year to balance budgets in the future when we have already balanced this year's budgets?"
Taxpayers, police and firefighters packed last week's meeting. Reception of the council's alternative to a property tax hike was mixed. Some residents applauded the City Council for being frugal.
But others were in Wood's corner, criticizing the council for "bitter partisanship," gutting what they said was already an exhausted budget, and for lacking foresight for the city's future.
But one public commenter in particular drew heartfelt applause after she urged city leaders not to forget the issue at hand.
Liz Romrell — the widow of fallen South Salt Lake police officer David Romrell, who was hit and killed by a fleeing driver — held back tears as she explained that even though her husband only made $40,000 a year, he didn't want to leave South Salt Lake for a higher paying agency.
"Sometimes I wonder if I had maybe said, 'Honey … maybe we should take a bigger pay raise,'" Romrell said. "If I would have been able to convince him, there's a chance I wouldn't be here today asking all of you to know that our first responders pay the ultimate price. They really do. And we owe it to them. ... His life is not worth $40,000 a year."
Her words drew applause in the council chambers.
Matt Oehler, president of South Salt Lake Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15, urged that city leaders find common ground.
"We're eager to fix this recruitment-retention crisis, but not at the expense of every other department of the city," Oehler said. "We don't want to be pitted against other departments in the city. It's not us versus them."