Salt Lake City's mayor Ralph Becker's budget reflects economic upswing

Published: Tuesday, April 24 2012 7:55 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Ralph Becker was in good spirits Tuesday night.

For the first time in his four-plus years as Salt Lake City's mayor, Becker was able to brief the City Council about his proposed budget without talking about declining revenues.

"Our local economy is on the upswing," the mayor declared.

Putting together budgets the previous four years, Becker said, has ranked "among the biggest challenges in my tenure as mayor."

"Now, as we look ahead, the first glimmer of sustained recovery is in sight," he said.

Revenues are trending upward, Becker noted, and the state's unemployment rate has fallen below 6 percent for the first time in four years. Add to that last month's opening of City Creek Center in the heart of downtown and "there's no reason to doubt a prosperous year is ahead for Salt Lake City," he said.

Becker's budget for the 2013 fiscal year won't be submitted to the City Council until May 1, but he shared some of the highlights during the council's meeting Tuesday night and  in a briefing with members of the media earlier in the day.

No property taxes are proposed as part of the budget, the mayor said, nor does it call for any layoffs, furloughs or cuts to city services. Becker also is proposing that city employees receive a "slight" pay increase.

"This group of committed public servants has been nothing short of exemplary in getting us through the recent hard times," he said. "We asked them to do more with less, and they did. We asked them to bear a bigger burden of rising insurance costs, and they did. We asked them to forgo wage increases at a time the city could least afford it, and they did."

Becker also proposes catching up on a backlog of city projects that have been delayed during lean budget years. For example, the city has put off replacing cars, trucks and specialized equipment in its nearly 3,800-vehicle fleet.

"As cars get older, they require more maintenance, and that costs the city more money," Becker said. "Those kinds of delayed expenditures cost the city money over time, and that's the kind of thing we're going to start to try to address this year in this budget."

Despite the improving economy, Salt Lake City's budget continues to be impacted by expenses beyond city leaders' control, such the rising costs for health care and fuel, the mayor noted.

Being "the largest, busiest and most dynamic city in the state" also brings with it additional financial burden, Becker said.

Commuters, shoppers and visitors cause the city's population to double during the daytime, he said, and the state's current distribution of tax dollars does not account for that.

As an example, Becker cited the city's responsibility for public safety. While most cities base their level of police service on a ratio of one officer per 1,000 residents, Salt Lake City has 2.5 officers per 1,000 to account for its increased daytime population.

"While our downtown renaissance continues and many new businesses are opening their doors throughout the city, the fiscal reality is the lion's share of new revenues created by these expansions are funneled to state and other local governments' coffers," he said.

City Creek Center, for example, is expected to attract 38,000 people to Salt Lake City six days a week. City officials estimate Salt Lake City will receive $1 million in additional property tax from the shopping center in fiscal 2013.

While that revenue certainly is welcome, city officials say it doesn't offset the city's infrastructure costs.

"We'll continue and renew our efforts at the Legislature to try to obtain a better allocation of the way revenues are distributed to reflect the unique circumstances we have with such a high daytime population," Becker said.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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