Budget veto? South Salt Lake City Council dodges mayor’s proposed tax hike for police, fire pay raises
Mayor Cherie Wood doesn’t rule out veto to avoid slashes to ‘skeleton’ budget
SOUTH SALT LAKE — A budget veto might be on South Salt Lake's horizon.
Or, next year may be an even tougher budget year.
Following a contentious, hourslong budget meeting Wednesday night, a narrow majority of the South Salt Lake City Council voted to dodge Mayor Cherie Wood's proposed property tax hike to give police and firefighters a 15 percent pay raise, despite pleas from other council members to find a compromise.
Instead, four out of seven members of the City Council voted to not raise taxes and instead cut about $1.2 million out of the city's budget to give police and firefighters a slightly smaller pay raise at 13 percent.
Wood told the Deseret News after the vote she's not ruling out a veto, but she hadn't made a decision yet. However, the mayor said she was clearly "disappointed" in the council's vote.
"I really was hoping we could find some kind of compromise," she said. "Our residents deserve better and so does police and fire."
Even though a three-member minority of the council — council members Ray DeWolfe, Sharla Bynum and Portia Mila — pushed for a "hybrid" tax increase to give police and firefighters the full 15 percent pay raise while also cutting some city department budgets, the four-member majority dug in their heels and would not budge on any tax increase this year.
"I've told my residents I don't support a tax increase this year," Councilwoman Cory Thomas said, adding that she didn't believe it was "fair" to residents to pass any tax increase just months after it first began being discussed.
Council Chairman Ben Pender and Councilmen Shane Siwik and Mark Kindred agreed — and that was enough to slam the door on 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 vote came after dozens of city residents lined up one after another to tell the council to either approve the mayor's proposed tax hike, compromise with each other on a smaller tax increase, or to not raise taxes altogether.
To some residents, that tax hike was a modest price — the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a month — to give police and firefighters competitive wages.
Among them was Jon Hertel, a member of the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, who welcomed the tax hike.
"It's OK, I'll give it," he said, pleading with the City Council not to cut it from other departments. "Our police and fire deserve more. And you can take it from my property."
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.
But there were other residents, like Charles Brady, who applauded the City Council for thinking of people on a fixed income who can't bear the brunt of increased costs year after year.
Resident Rob Carper said he's lived in South Salt Lake 32 years and hadn't ever felt the need to come to a City Council meeting until now to speak out against a proposed tax hike.
"When's enough? I've had it," he said. "I'm at the point where I want to sell my property and run."
The City Council and the mayor have clashed in recent weeks over the budget. Last week, the narrow majority of the council moved forward on efforts to avoid a tax hike at all costs, snipping away funds from nearly all city departments including community development, public works and other programs to still give police and fire a modest pay bump.
But Wood protested the City Council's approach, saying it chips away at an already "skeleton" budget and "kicks the can down the road" by using one-time money for the pay raises, rather than using a property tax hike as a more sustainable, long-term solution.
"We all know the problem isn't going away," the mayor told the council. "So let's be courageous and compromise. ... I'm willing to compromise for the good of our public safety department and our residents. They deserve better."
One resident, Carol Maw, scolded city leaders for infighting.
"I'm tired of it," she said. "Every last one of you said you wanted to make South Salt Lake better ... and then you get up there and you fight with each other like cats and dogs."
DeWolfe and other members of the council's minority pleaded multiple times that the council consider a smaller, 15 percent tax hike. But the majority — what one resident called the "gang of four" — wouldn't give.
DeWolfe, growing increasingly frustrated, questioned whether the four members of the council had a plan for next year.
"Because I'm going to have to deal with it next year," he said, noting that while other members of the council were up for re-election, he will not be. "I'm going to be kicking myself in the butt if I didn't say this tonight and try and stop it."
Siwik said "This is why we do budgets annually," adding that he believed the city needed more time to debate a possible tax hike. DeWolfe then suggested the council study the budget quarterly to have "honest" discussions ahead of time, "so we aren't sitting here without a plan." Other members of the council agreed.
As the vote approached, Bynum entered one last plea for a compromise before questioning whether the mayor could veto the budget.
"I don't say that very lightly," she said. "On one hand, I want to be a team player. but on the other hand I'm really frustrated with the lack of compromise. … I'm really struggling."
South Salt Lake's Director of Finance, Kyle Kershaw, hinted a veto would put South Salt Lake in a precarious situation.
"To be honest, I don't know what happens," Kershaw said, noting that under state law the city must adopt a new tax rate by June 22 and a balanced budget by June 30. If not, "it's not good," he said.
"The state auditor can withhold funds and freeze bank accounts if it gets drastic," he said.