SANDY — In a clash with a split Sandy City Council over whether city police officers, firefighters and other employees would get a scheduled pay raise as originally planned before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn did something perhaps no Sandy mayor before him has ever done.
Just moments after a divided City Council voted 4-3 Thursday night to pass a budget that delayed funding for a full 2020 step pay raise for first responders and a 2% cost of living raise for city employees, a heated Bradburn announced he’d be vetoing that line item of the council’s approved budget.
“What I’m hoping this does is it creates a new window for you to listen to the hundreds and hundreds of people that have turned out, the employees that continue to turn out,” Bradburn said. “Now you have a new window to restart and to think about what you’ve done.”
The vote came despite weeks of passionate public debate and after hundreds of Sandy residents and employees urged the council not to make any changes to the pay plan — particularly for police and other first responders amid a time of national debate around policing following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It also came after a divisive debate in Sandy last year over a property tax increase to fund police and firefighter positions — which the council approved amid demands to prioritize public safety.
But the City Council members who drove the pay raise delay weren’t seeking to “defund” or slash police pay — or any city employee pay. Instead, Councilwoman Cyndi Sharkey said their aim was to pass a “conservative” and cautious budget amid uncertain economic times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They supported a phased approach that would give city employees 25% of their pay raises, then more as the year went on based on economic conditions.
“The game plan, if the economy cooperated, was that all city employees would be made whole and caught up (in pay raises) by midyear,” Sharkey told the Deseret News Friday. “All of us, every single one of us in Sandy, we value first responders, we respect them, we appreciate them, we are lucky to have the best around. ... This has never been a question of merit. It’s been a question of the economy: Can we afford this?”
The amount of money that would be put on hold for those pay raises, subject to incremental approval based on economic benchmarks and council approval? About $535,000 — a fraction of the city’s $117 million total budget.
Bradburn, seething from the council’s move, blasted those four council members for “ignoring” his finance staff’s confidence that their proposed budget — already slimmed down by 10% — could weather COVID-19, and dismissing the ability to cut from more than $20 million in other areas before even “touching” employee pay raises.
Plus, the city was on track to have $4 million left over after coming in under budget last year, Bradburn said. And the city’s 12% rainy day fund remains untouched.
“The point is, and the reason I get frustrated, and the point you’re missing, and the reason our employees and citizens are so irate, is because the very first place you turn to make cuts are on the backs of the people you continue to say are the most important people in our city,” Bradburn said.
The mayor argued the City Council could have easily moved forward with the pay raise and still found cuts elsewhere if economic times worsened — something he already plans to do.
“If I have to as an operator find those, I will, in March or April or May or whenever the hell the next pandemic comes, I will find those cuts and I will make them because I will not overspend this budget,” Bradburn said.
“But I’m not going to do it right off the bat when we don’t need to, and I’m certainly not going to send a message to our employees that the first place I’m going to turn is off their backs. It’s just the wrong message,” Bradburn said. “You got this policy decision wrong.”
As promised, Bradburn issued his veto Friday.
“The benchmark approach to funding the Sandy City compensation plan would hinder the city’s ability to keep those promises made to residents (for the property tax hike) and make it incredibly difficult to hire additional personnel,” Bradburn wrote in his veto memo. “By trickling out the funding for the step and grade pay for first responders, the city risks losing qualified individuals to cities that have competitive pay scales already in place.”
Sharkey, who pointed out the mayor’s budget instituted a hiring freeze, said Friday she was “shocked and disappointed” by Bradburn’s veto. She argued a phased approach to the pay increase would be more responsible, saying an “ongoing expense is something you can’t climb out of without making difficult decisions.”
“But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about that because this mayor has shown an inclination to give pay raises at inappropriate times,” Sharkey said, taking a jab at the mayor for when he came under fire in 2018 for giving himself a pay raise.
“We did pass the pay increase,” Sharkey said, but with contingencies, “How is it so deficient, so egregious, so horrible in missing the mark, that you have to veto it? I am still scratching my head over that. I have no idea. And with such hostility and such anger.”
The fight over the budget put on display not only a rift between Bradburn and four members of the council — Sharkey, Council Chairwoman Kris Nicholl, and Councilwomen Marci Houseman and Alison Stroud — but also an inter-council divide.
Council members Zach Robinson, Brooke Christensen and Monica Zoltanski fought to keep the pay raises as is, urging their council members to listen to the horde of Sandy residents who demanded it.
“People feel very protective of our public safety officers in Sandy,” Zoltanski said Friday. “Hopefully, after weeks of hearing from our residents, the overwhelming message ... it’s unequivocal. People want and expect those pay increases to go through.”
The City Council isn’t expected to override the mayor’s veto, according to the council’s executive director, Mike Applegarth. An override would require at least five votes, and there doesn’t appear to be support for that, he said.
Bradburn and other council members don’t know what to expect at Sandy’s next council meeting Tuesday — and it’s still not clear exactly what will happen with the budget.
But unless the council comes up with a compromise, and if the city attorney’s legal analysis is correct, those full pay raises could take effect July 1.