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Salt Lake County residents must wait another week to find out if county taxes will go up next year to pay for mounting needs in the criminal justice system.
After hearing nearly 30 speakers lambast a plan to extend property tax collections from an expiring bond for jail construction, the County Council decided Tuesday to put off approval of the $1.1 billion 2016 budget until next Tuesday in hopes of finding cuts that would negate the need for a tax increase.
Republican Councilman Michael Jensen secured his colleagues' support to sit down with Mayor Ben McAdams over the next week to see if other budget cuts could avoid a tax increase without hamstringing efforts to address a criminal justice crisis.
McAdams proposed to keep collecting the $9.4 million from the 1995 jail bond, which expires this month, and to use it for ongoing public-safety purposes, bolstering the sheriff and district attorney's offices now and setting aside money for future endeavors.
Under that plan, taxpayers would not see their taxes reduced by $18 per year from the jail bond's expiration. In addition, because of a separate park bond, the owner of a $273,000 home would end up paying an extra $2.28. Taxes on a comparably valued business would go up $4.15.
While many speakers said that money was important to people living on fixed incomes, others said their opposition was based more on principle.
"A promise was made by your predecessors" to remove the jail tax when it was paid off, said Magna resident Brian Gallagher. "I hope you keep it."
Added Laura Patterson of Taylorsville: "If I make a promise to my children, they expect me to keep it … If you can't keep this promise, we can't trust you."
Richard Perschon said he does not have confidence that county officials will give up plans to keep collecting the tax, asking rhetorically, "Has this ever happened in the history of the county? I think not."
Billy Hesterman of the Utah Taxpayers Association and Evelyn Everton of Americans for Prosperity joined unaffiliated county residents in bashing the tax hike.
Hesterman said "it leaves county taxpayers on the end of a bait-and-switch deal" while Everton maintained the $18 county residents should be getting back is "one more Christmas present for kids under the tree. A lot of families would like that."
Jensen called on both activists to mobilize their groups' extensive lobbying bases to help convince state officials to quit passing along unfunded mandates that are creating this financial bind for the county.
He cited inmates that the state forces the county to hold in jail while paying only 40 percent of the costs. In addition, Jensen urged Hesterman and Everton to push the Legislature to pass some kind of Medicaid plan that would funnel hundreds of millions of federal dollars into mental health and substance abuse programs crucial to reducing inmate recidivism.
Several speakers suggested other cuts the county could make to balance the budget without a tax increase.
"We have money earmarked for a hotel no one wants to build," Herriman resident Casey Jackson said of ongoing county efforts to find a private-sector partner to build a convention center headquarters hotel next to the Salt Palace.
A teacher, he also questioned county spending on early-education programs, expressing doubt that they keep people out of jail later on.
Bill Chipman, a former state employee, suggested county officials should work harder to get better deals on goods and services from the private sector.
"Contractors think it's a gravy train to get a government contract," he said. "You could save a lot of money being tough negotiators."
Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove, a Republican who has opposed the tax increase from the start, vowed to pursue cuts that could avoid the hike.
"This $18, I believe, is better spent [coming out of] your pocket than ours," he said.
The council is now expected to finalize the budget Dec. 15 at 6 p.m.