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Midvale, Unified police caught in 'fiscal dilemma' amid push to pay officers more

City left frustrated with costs, may be next to leave department if budget doesn't pan out

MIDVALE — After both Herriman and Riverton split off to form their own police departments — all while agencies statewide have struggled to keep police officer salaries competitive — the Unified Police Department is having a tough budget year.

And Midvale is caught right in the middle.

Last month, Midvale leaders were shocked to see the Unified contract would cost them nearly $1.5 million or a whopping 20 percent more than what they had expected.

Unified police officer Jeff Fenton concludes a phone interview on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Unified police officer Jeff Fenton concludes a phone interview on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Coupled with frustrations from last year's increased budget, that surprise cost increase left council members reeling.

"This is insane," Midvale Councilman Bryant Brown said in the May 7 meeting.

Midvale Mayor Robert Hale, who also sits on Unified's board of trustees, said Unified's financial troubles come during an especially tough time — when not only police agencies, but also fire departments struggle to pay their employees enough to stop them from searching elsewhere for higher salaries.

"It's a real, real fiscal dilemma that we're in right now," Hale said.

The Unified Police Department is one of Utah's largest and wide-reaching police agencies — putting officers in neighborhoods across the Wasatch Front through contracts with cities that don't have their own police forces.

Unified's rising contract costs is among the reasons why cities like Herriman and Riverton left — but with each city that leaves, Unified is stuck with a dwindling budget, forced to spread its costs on remaining cities.

Midvale officials, reeling from sticker shock, began weeks ago mulling the possibility of becoming the next city to withdraw from Unified. The Midvale City Council last month was poised to send a letter warning of its intent to withdraw — but ultimately decided against it, pulling back to give the department more time to cut costs and finalize its budget.

Unified police officer Jeff Fenton talks with Jennica Martinez after witnessing her running down the street yelling at her husband, Caesar Martinez, on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on sa
Unified police officer Jeff Fenton talks with Jennica Martinez after witnessing her running down the street yelling at her husband, Caesar Martinez, on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Since then, city leaders have negotiated with Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and other Unified leaders to bring down the cost — but city officials are still looking at a more than $821,000 increase and will need to dip into city funds to fill the gap.

"We can get there," Midvale City Manager Kane Loader told council members.

But what about next year? And the year after that? There's still quite a bit of uncertainty with Unified's budget, Loader said, leaving council members uneasy but willing to give the department more time — at least for this year's budget.

"At some point, we have to decide how many Band-Aids we're willing to put on this before they have to come off," Brown said.

It all comes down to the numbers, Midvale spokeswoman Laura Magness told the Deseret News on Monday.

"We're committed to working with UPD. We don't want to leave," Magness said. "If the numbers aren't there and it's much cheaper for us to start our own (police force), then we'd have to, but that's not our goal right now."

Unified Police Department's Midvale Precinct on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Unified Police Department's Midvale Precinct on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

So Midvale leaders will be watching a key Unified board meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning, where board members are expected to hash out the police department's budget and its final ask of Midvale and other cities.

But Midvale's contract isn't the only issue at hand.

Unified is losing police officers, struggling to keep pay competitive. It's a problem other cities like Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake are also grappling with this year.

To both show "solidarity" with Midvale and to pressure Unified to pay its officers more while it's tackling its budget woes, mayors from Midvale, Millcreek, Holladay and Taylorsville (who also serve on the Unified board and will have votes in finalizing the department's budget) — sent a letter urging Rivera to increase officer pay 10.75 percent, above the 6.75 percent pay previously proposed this year.

But on top of those pay raises, the mayors and board members asked Rivera to cut Unified's regional police patrols by 25 percent. That could possibly mean layoffs or other kinds of cuts.

Since cities have left. Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle says it's the right time to restructure.

"We think it's time to take a real hard look at the regional services component of UPD and make sure it's appropriately sized to the organization that's left," Dahle said. "We love the UPD model. All the (letter signees) want to stay in UPD. But at the end of the day, it's got to be an efficient model for the members participating."

Unified police officer Jeff Fenton talks with Jennica Martinez after witnessing her running down the street yelling at her husband, Caesar Martinez, on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on sa
Unified police officer Jeff Fenton talks with Jennica Martinez after witnessing her running down the street yelling at her husband, Caesar Martinez, on Monday, June 3, 2019. Midvale is considering withdrawing from the Unified Police Department based on salary negotiations and possible layoffs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But the sheriff said a 25 percent cut to regional services would have dramatic effects on public safety, and she won't take that risk.

"I want to make sure our citizens are safe, No. 1, and that is why I said I'm not going to make those type of cuts," Rivera said on KSL NewsRadio's "Dave and Dujanovic" show Monday.

"We are looking at everything we possibly can to see and make sure we're efficient in the budget and transparent," the sheriff said. "If there are monies there, we will find it and pay our officers more. If there's not, then we will reduce the amount of raises to make sure our budget is balanced and everyone is happy."

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he met with Rivera last week one-on-one, and after discussing the issue with her he said he's no longer supportive of a 25 percent cut to regional services. But he and other mayors will still "do what we can" to push for pay increases for officers "while also being sensitive" to city budgets.

Dahle expects Unified's board to have some "hard discussions" on Tuesday, but he's hopeful board members will find some "middle ground" with both Rivera and Midvale. The signers on the letter only represent four out of 12 Unified board members.

"We're going to have to at least have some really firm direction coming out of this meeting," he said. "We've got to approve a budget in the next two weeks."