Salt Lake County Council members betrayed little emotion Thursday as Mayor Peter Corroon laid out a 2013 budget proposal that included a 17.5 percent tax increase.
But it was clearly there, below the surface, as the Republican-majority council heard Democrat Corroon insist that four years of cuts had left county operations unable to withstand more cuts, and that a property tax hike of $30.9 million was needed to balance his $788 million proposal.
That amounts to $64 a year on a $238,000 home, the county median value. The increase would appear on tax bills that go out about this time next year.
"As difficult as it is, when it's time to raise taxes, it's time to raise taxes. That time is now," said the two-term mayor, who leaves office in January. He will be replaced by fellow Democrat Ben McAdams, who listened to the budget presentation in a packed County Council chambers.
"It sounds like it's bipartisan in its approach and I appreciate that," McAdams said later. "I have a lot of questions that I'm going to be asking. At the same time, I want to recognize that I don't take office until January and don't want to overstep my bounds."
The county's independently elected officials uniformly supported Corroon's budget, saying they cannot fulfill their statutory duties without more funding. But the council ultimately will decide if the mayor gets all or part of what he is seeking.
Reaching the decision won't be easy.
For while the Republican council members, in particular, are well known to be averse to tax increases, much of the extra revenue that would be generated is directed in Corroon's budget to two uses that council members have all embraced to varying degrees: Restoring employee pay and benefit cuts made at the height of the Great Recession, and attacking the backlog of deferred maintenance projects around the county.
A tax increase, Corroon added, would restore structural stability to the county's revenue stream, which inflation has eroded steadily since the county's last property tax increase in 2001. From repeated presentations this year, council members are well acquainted with that fiscal weakness, which has cost the county 26 percent of its purchasing power over the past 12 years.
Still, approving a tax increase is not something politicians take lightly. The public can bend the council's ear on the budget at a public hearing scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 11 in the council chambers at 2001 S. State St.
"It's going to be interesting, as we dive into the meat of this [budget], to see where everybody is," said newly re-elected Councilman Michael Jensen, a Republican. "Any time tax increases are proposed, you're shocked at first, no matter the number. We have to look at the devil in the details."
Added his GOP colleague, Steve DeBry: "I want to dissect this proposal piece by piece and not take the whole thing or nothing. We also have to remember the families and citizens out there in dire need to hold onto their money to keep their households and businesses going as well."
Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi praised Corroon's willingness to make a difficult recommendation, but said there was little choice. Strictly cutting costs was insufficient. "You can only tax the system so long. You have to do what's right."
To Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, also a Democrat, the support of the other elected county officials was most telling, showing "they're willing to take the heat" along with the mayor and council.
The heat rose quickly.
Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Taxpayers Association accused Corroon of being deceptive in waiting to unveil his property tax increase until after Tuesday's election, when county residents approved the issuance of $47 million in bonds for county parks. Those bonds will cost the average homeowner $5.73 annually.
"If Mayor Corroon had been upfront with Salt Lake County voters about his plans for this tax hike, Tuesday's outcome might have been very different," said Van Tassell, who is eager to help the council "identify alternatives to this massive property tax hike."
Corroon acknowledged "this was a big decision, and a painful one. … Tax increases are tough to swallow, especially when economic conditions have not been stellar."
But year after year of trimming, and making employees work more for less pay, convinced him a tax increase was unavoidable. After all, since the last tax hike, the county has added by 140,000 services-demanding residents. More gyms, senior centers and libraries were built to serve them. In addition, Corroon noted, the county has 34 percent more residents 60 and older the age group that needs many of the human services provided by the county.
"By taking a measured, responsible and conservative approach as we continue to climb out of our nation's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," he said, "we have produced a budget that protects public safety and preserves critical services to children and seniors. This budget keeps our fiscal house in order."
The proposed budget would provide $8.5 million for deferred capital maintenance and $7 million to restore employee pay and benefit cuts made in 2008 and 2009. It also would set aside an additional $1 million to help the sheriff pay for higher fuel and inmate food costs. The plan also would add 25 employees to the county workforce, which still would be 75 to 80 workers below pre-recession levels.
County Assessor Lee Gardner hopes the council takes Corroon's parting budget message to heart. "I'm not doing my job now in the way, in my opinion, that it should be done because I need the resources to do it," he said.
Twitter: @sltribmikeg County budget
Outgoing Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said his proposed $788 million budget for 2013 would:
Require a 17.5 percent increase in property taxes to fund countywide services.
Cost the owner of a $238,000 home $64 more a year.
Restore employee pay and benefit cuts inflicted during the recession.
Take aim at deferred maintenance projects around the county.
Preserve the county's AAA bond rating by propping up its revenue stream.
For more information, go to www.slco.org.
A public hearing on the Salt Lake County budget is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11, in the County Council chambers at 2001 S. State St.