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Mendenhall proposes ‘conservative’ first budget amid pandemic uncertainty

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall delivers her State of the City address at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall presented her first budget proposal as mayor on Tuesday, offering a “conservative” plan amid the uncertain economic times of the global coronavirus pandemic.

It was a stark shift from what Mendenhall had originally hoped to do after a year of higher-than-expected revenues stemming from a year of high economic growth.

“Now, in the midst of a swift change that has overwhelmed our world, we are fortunate to be in a position where we will not only endure, but evolve as a stronger community post-pandemic,” Mendenhall said in her presentation to the Salt Lake City Council during an online meeting Tuesday.

“While I had hoped to announce more exciting and innovative new projects with our budget surplus, this time calls for careful, deliberate planning with an emphasis on retaining our employees, continuity of services to our residents, and support of our communities,” the new mayor said.

Mendenhall’s $1.27 billion budget proposal avoids staff layoffs by retaining current staffing levels, while still including money for initiatives like housing stability, trails, parks and earthquake repairs.

Additionally, Mendenhall decided against previously scheduled rate increases for water, stormwater, street lighting, waste and recycling.

Mendenhall said experts project that by the start of July, most industries in the state will be in a “stabilization phase” amid the pandemic, and by mid-October, industries will “be at the beginning of the full recovery and a ‘new normal’ of the risk.”

Based on that projection, Mendenhall said revenues aren’t expected to be as rich as this year’s — but by the middle of the year, “we anticipate seeing those revenues start to normalize and even return to increasing year over year.”

“In total, we are proposing a flat budget overall this year,” Mendenhall said. “We will maintain many of the current position vacancies through January. By being conservative, we are confident that we will be able to retain our city employees and maintain a 15% fund balance — up significantly from previous years.”

The three priorities of the 2020 plan, the mayor said, is “harnessing our growth for the good of all residents; leading the way on resilience and stewardship; and creating inclusive and equitable opportunities for all.”

Mendenahall’s budget proposal includes over $9 million for housing stability by combining dollars from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, new tax revenue from the city’s recent sales tax increase, and federal coronavirus relief money.

“The domino effect that COVID-19 has had in our world is profound and has amplified many of the issues facing people, including housing insecurity,” Mendenhall said, adding that she’s proud of the work to provide “relief and reassurance” with rental and mortgage assistance, rapid rehousing, homeless resource centers operations and other efforts.

Mendenhall also included $500,000 for shovel-ready projects in the Foothill Trail System master plan, money to plan the future of Allen Park as a “destination art park,” and funding to rehabilitate two Salt Lake bridges that were damaged by the 5.7 magnitude earthquake in March.

“When I took this position just a few months ago there was no way to foresee both an earthquake and a pandemic in our future. But thanks to the work of the thousands of incredible employees, the City Council, department and division directors, and my administration, we are in a stable place,” Mendenhall said. “It’s a fortunate position to be in, and I’m optimistic Salt Lake City will be able to continue that prudence as we weather this storm.”

Mendenhall’s budget is subject to approval by the City Council, expected to adopt a final budget by mid-June.