Salt Lake County's elected officials lined up Tuesday to tell the County Council why they unanimously supported Mayor Peter Corroon's proposed 17.5 percent property tax hike for the 2013 budget.
Starting with Sheriff Jim Winder, a Democrat, and continuing on through Recorder Gary Ott, a Republican, six elected officials described how four years of trimming personnel and projects have left them on the verge of being unable to carry out their legal duties.
"The reality is, we're running out of money," said Winder, who oversees a budget of about$97 million and manages around 730 employees. "The [mayor's $788 million] budget is realistic and appropriate to maintain service levels we need."
Recognizing that the council will face considerable political pressure while pondering whether to approve all or part of Corroon's proposed $31 million tax hike, Winder pledged, "I will stand with you, as I have with the mayor and his staff, to support what is tragic but necessary revenue for this county."
Council members kept their thoughts about the tax increase to themselves as they listened to the officials' presentations Tuesday, peppering each with a few questions before moving on to the next agency.
The 2½-hour review was the council's second budget session since Corroon released his budget on Thursday. The council will spend the next month going over details of the retiring mayor's final budget proposal, department by department.
In mid-December, after a Dec. 11 public hearing, the council will decide whether to go along with all or part of the requested property tax increase, which would be the county's first since 2001.
The proposed increase amounts to $64 a year on a $238,000 home, the county median value. It would appear on tax bills that go out about this time next year.
Corroon called last week for the double-digit boost, saying the inevitable could be delayed no longer. Eleven years without an increase have stripped Salt Lake County of a quarter of its purchasing power, he said, leaving the county with two choices: Raise taxes to keep service levels where they are now, or cut back even more, an option he deemed no longer possible.
Citing the full support of the elected officials, Corroon specified that the tax hike was needed largely for two issues: to finish restoring the compensation packages of 3,600 county employees, whose wages and benefits were reduced when the Great Recession exploded four years ago, and to take care of badly needed deferred-maintenance projects around the county.
The elected officials backed Corroon completely Tuesday.
Without a tax increase, Democratic District Attorney Sim Gill said, his office would be forced to lay off personnel.
"We don't have discretion if you want to cut our budget," he said. "I can't round up the criminals and tell them to cut their bad behavior 10 percent."
County Surveyor Reid Demman, a Republican, said he now has five fewer employees to monitor 850 square miles, coordinating a public land survey system that "is the very foundation of property-tax collections. ... I simply can't take any more cuts and perform my statutory duties."
Cut any deeper now and the savings will be counterproductive, warned County Treasurer Wayne Cushing, with the backing of County Assessor Lee Gardner, inhibiting the county's ability to collect taxes that are due. Both belong to the GOP.
"We need a tax increase," Gardner said. "I need to publicly state that.
"I don't see a good alternative for where we are at this juncture," he said, imploring the council not to take a shortcut that might reduce protests this year but result in another tax increase proposal next year or the year after.
Salt Lake County budget
O To see the mayor's proposed budget, go to http://bit.ly/UnlqB0.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 11 in the County Council chambers, 2001 S. State St.