Arthur Raymond
December 10, 2009

A budget-trimming process that began last summer with a scalpel and ended with an axe and a tax increase culminated Tuesday night with final approval of Salt Lake County’s 2010 budget.

It makes official a package that found about $140 million in reductions compared with last year’s budget, including trimming employee roles, reducing wages, slashing funding to almost 300 programs and assessing a $13.5 million property tax increase.

Although months of work by Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and the nine-member, Democratically-controlled council saw little in the way of contention, Tuesday’s vote fell along party lines, 5-4. Democratic Council Chairman Joe Hatch said Wednesday that he was disappointed with the divisive vote.

“At the hearing, every single Republican made note of this being a great budget process … the best we ever had,” Hatch said. “But then when the vote occurred, they turned their backs.”

Councilman Jeff Allen, leader of the minority Republicans, said it was only circumstantial that all four GOP members voted against the final budget package, but the reasoning was likely the same.

“We all would have preferred finding reductions to bridge the $13.5 million gap,” Allen said. “This is just not the time to assess new taxes.”

According to a poll conducted by the Utah Taxpayers’ Association, Salt Lake County stands alone in Utah in its decision to raise taxes. Twenty-five other counties that responded to the survey are working to forgo new levies in the coming year.

As the national economic crisis stormed into the state during 2009, Corroon and the council worked to keep up with dwindling revenue streams and the rising costs of basic employee benefits. Tens of millions of dollars were slashed in June as a hiring freeze was continued and contributions to employee retirement plans were kept on hold. Those efforts proved to be a fiscal treading of water, as the downward spiral continued.

In October, Corroon released a plan for the coming year that found deeper cuts, pulling more than 300 full-time employees off the books, trimming salaries by 2.75 percent countywide, slashing some program funding (including contributions to the West Valley Cultural Celebration Center, Sandy Amphitheater and Utah Restaurant Association) and maintaining a zero-contribution level to employee 401(k) programs, while protecting services to the county’s most vulnerable citizens, including seniors and at-risk youth.

Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Nicole Dunn told the council before its vote Tuesday that Corroon’s plan was the right solution for the county’s fiscal challenges.

“I believe these reductions and cost-cutting measures demonstrate a firm commitment to reduce costs and live within our means,” she said. “It is a measured, conservative approach to balancing our county budget in difficult times.”

Both Hatch and Allen recognized Wednesday that while the broad plan for next year is now in place, the efforts to keep Salt Lake County’s finances in check is far from over.

“The work isn’t going to stop,” Hatch said. “We’re already looking at end-of-the-year shortfalls that will need to be addressed … And the erosion of revenues, which looks likely to continue at least in the short term, will require our constant attention.”