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Mayor Jenny Wilson: What the nation can learn from fiscally responsible Salt Lake County

Salt Lake County joins only 47 of the 3,007 county governments nationwide to earn the prestigious Triple-A bond rating.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson talks to members of the media about the county’s proposed budget for 2021 at the Salt Lake County Council Chambers in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

We all remember the challenging early days of COVID-19. Spring of 2020 was especially trying, simply due to the unknowns around the virus. The world as we knew it stopped as we collectively worked to understand and address the enormity of our situation. While the health of Salt Lake County was certainly on the forefront my mind, I was also concerned about impending economic instability in Salt Lake County.

We quickly reshaped services to meet new realities. Quarantine and isolation operations were built, and systems were expanded. Staffing was increased to trace community spread, provide education and operate testing sites, including mobile testing in the hardest hit areas.

Not only did Salt Lake County reshape health service delivery, internal actions were implemented by our top-notch finance team to address potential revenue loss and stabilize the county’s budget. Spending controls were implemented, and a hiring freeze took effect on March 16. When budget realities required deep cuts, Salt Lake County’s nearly 7,000 employees found a way to stretch resources without layoffs while also responding to natural events, like March’s earthquake and September’s windstorm.

And while Salt Lake County’s tourism and hospitality industries have been hit hard by COVID-19, the county’s fiscal house is in order. In fact, Salt Lake County is weathering this storm far better than most counties in the nation. Just last week, the county was notified by all three rating agencies (S&P Global, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s) that it has retained its Triple-A bond rating, a distinction earned by only 47 of the 3,007 county governments nationwide.

Because of this prestigious rating, Salt Lake County can finance services and projects at the lowest possible interest rates, saving taxpayers millions of dollars over the course of repaying bonds. Those bonds finance parks, libraries, health clinics, roads, flood control facilities and many other projects. Salt Lake County’s 2021 budget is balanced and will be finalized on Dec. 1. These efforts mean the county is prepared for a quick and full recovery when the term “6-foot social distancing” is behind us.

While the county’s fiscal staff was addressing budget impacts, the federal government provided Salt Lake County a substantial grant to combat the health crisis and mitigate COVID-19 community impacts. Funding was dispensed to struggling businesses, cities and schools to address staffing shortages and technology needs — all while prioritizing a massive health response that will continue throughout 2021, focusing on the most vulnerable in our community to keep them from falling further behind.

In addition to the ingenuity, commitment and dedication of our incredible finance team and workforce, I’m thankful for the foresight of current and former county leaders. Regardless of ideological and policy differences, the county’s strong financial footing and prudent investment in facilities, equipment and world-class staff come from a tradition of thoughtful and careful budgeting by the dozens of elected officials to serve county residents over the years.

While there was no playbook provided, Salt Lake County demonstrated remarkable ingenuity upon the arrival of COVID-19.

With the promise of imminent vaccines, we should be able to return to a semblance of our pre-COVID lives soon, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The rising number of infections means vigilance is critical to curbing the further spread of the virus and more harm to our economy. There can be no economic recovery without first restoring consumer confidence by ending this pandemic.

I am grateful this Thanksgiving season that Salt Lake County has excelled this year — perhaps more than any other — at meeting unheard-of challenges, while retaining our commitment to economic health and savings to taxpayers.

Despite everything 2020 has thrown at us, Salt Lake County continues to innovate and foster teamwork and resiliency between our employees, elected officials and community partners so we can ensure a safe and prosperous community for all our residents.

Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.