Dimmed lights, no flowers, layoffs -- Becker unveils 'grim' budget

Salt Lake City » No tax hike, but Peace Gardens will lose its blooms.
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Expect darker Salt Lake City streets, browner -- and taller -- grass in the parks and the elimination of public flowers, even at the showcase International Peace Gardens.

Forget blossoming in a Youth City Artways program and get used to a "clogged" court system as well as longer waits for a building permit.

In return, count on paying more to park at the airport, downtown library and the Salt Palace -- and forking over more for stormwater fees.

Such are the sacrifices proposed by Mayor Ralph Becker, whose fiscal 2011 budget saves core services but slims a recession-savaged City Hall that is trying to plug an $18.8 million financial hole.

The positive: Residents would not face a property-tax increase.

"It was always there as a last resort, but we never put it on the table," Becker said before presenting his stripped-down spreadsheet Tuesday. "We've tried to create a sensible, frugal budget going forward. It's not easy, but it's part of the job."

For the first time, this mayor's job description includes hatchet man. His budget, which shrinks the general fund from $201 million to $186 million, calls for wiping out 67 city positions, more in the seasonal ranks. Twenty-five employees would be laid off, while remaining cuts would come through attrition.

The City Council will spend the next six weeks debating the figures and making changes before adopting a formal budget in mid-June.

"It's the hardest part of the budget," Becker said about the layoffs, projected to save nearly $5 million. "This affects individuals, their families, their careers. And it isn't the fault of the employees."

No on-the-street police officers or firefighters would be reduced, although three civilian police positions are slated for elimination. Last year's across-the-board 1.5 percent pay cut also would be restored since Becker heard "it's clearly having an effect on morale."

At the same time, employees would be tapped another 5 percent for health-care costs to help the city absorb a 9 percent overall spike. That jump would follow a 5 percent employee health-care bump last year.

During the past two years, anemic sales taxes have forced Utah's capital to shave its general fund by $24 million -- a drop of more than 11 percent.

"I'm actually incredibly impressed that he was able to balance it without raising taxes," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said. "He really looked at every department and how we can do things more efficiently."

Council Chairman J.T. Martin was surprised the mayor avoided a property-tax hike. "Listening to his reasoning for it, his rationale, I think he's correct."

But Martin voiced concern about the layoffs, arguing now is the time for the city to be fully staffed.

"I just experienced having to do that myself," Martin said, referring to the layoffs of 50 employees at his now-defunct Emigration Market. "It's a horrible experience."

Becker tried to be surgical with cuts after late hours spent with department heads and council members to find the most painless reductions.

The Department of Administrative Services was erased and other jobs shuffled to create efficiencies. Police personnel would see their desk phones retired in exchange for city-owned cell phones. If successful, the move could spread across other departments.

A property-tax adjustment from the county for emergency services would help plug some of the hole. And, overall, the mayor located $5.5 million in new revenue from a combination of new fees, transfers and a fund balance.

But he warned many trims would be visible to the public, including the loss of flowers at the west side's peace gardens. Building Services, he added, would take a "pretty severe hit." "Some of the response times on permits and inspections will be slower."

Calling the fiscal shelf "particularly grim," Becker said now "is one of those moments in time when we all have to pull together."

The mayor called the bleak budget "the new normal," not an "aberration while we wait for the flush years to return."

But Becker closed with an optimistic tone, insisting the capital still is "on the rise." He pointed to the now-under-way rebuild of North Temple, the planned public-safety headquarters and a proposed downtown cultural district, as well as the city's social-justice efforts.

Still, dimming the midblock streetlights would be as clear a symbol as any of the dark financial times gripping City Hall.


Belt cinching in SLC

Highlights from Mayor Ralph Becker's proposed fiscal 2011 budget

No property-tax increase.

Twenty-five layoffs; 42 vacant positions eliminated.

Elimination of the Department of Administrative Services.

Decrease in midblock street lighting.

Youth City and summer programs maintained, but Youth City Artways dismantled.

After-hours response team shut down.

Cuts in fuel and fleet maintenance at police department.

Parking-rate hikes at airport, downtown library and Salt Palace.

Greenhouses closed; no city flowers.