“This budget is business-minded in its efficiencies and fiscally responsible.” Those are the words that Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker used in presenting his fiscal year 2015 budget to the City Council Tuesday night.
It is a budget that addresses Salt Lake’s key priorities and even manages to give city employees a 3 percent raise, the first in more than six years. The budget does this without raising taxes — a significant accomplishment. Becker has made fiscal decisions that include restructuring the city’s fire and emergency response services to rely more on light vehicles, and less on large trucks, for certain emergency calls. He also plans to close one of the lowest-risk of the city’s 14 fire stations. These changes are projected to save the city at least $400,000 in the first year.
In one challenging area, Becker is looking to identify reasons for lower-than-expected property tax revenues. He said, “over the last five years, Salt Lake City has added more than 2,000 new units of housing downtown. We have added new office towers. And retail development — led by the construction and opening of City Creek Center — has expanded also.” And yet, he continued, “the growth in our downtown has not translated proportionately into revenues for the city.”
To look for ways to maximize economic opportunities, Becker has asked State Auditor John Dougall to work with him to identify what Becker called “our fair share of certain revenues.” This unlikely alliance — the Democratic mayor and the Republican state auditor — is typical of the real-world pragmatism Becker has demonstrated as mayor.
Becker’s budget also reiterates the ambitious goal of eliminating homelessness in Salt Lake City and building bridges with a range of state entities and nonprofit organizations. Becker also is eager to expand transit opportunities as a way to make the city more livable and attractive to a range of mixed-used development. Transportation build-out would have been easier if the Legislature had passed a bill that allowed local municipalities to vote for increased sales taxes for transportation.
Meeting with the editorial board of the Deseret News, Becker highlighted the economic and social benefits of expanded transit, citing the streetcar line in Sugar House as a template for development throughout the city. Mass transit is also significant in improving the city’s air quality. The hazardous inversion season creates a significant disincentive for businesses seeking to relocate in the Salt Lake Valley. We wholeheartedly support improvements in air quality. But the high costs of public transit need always to be measured against the case-by-case benefits they will produce.
There is much that is praiseworthy in Becker’s fiscal year 2015 budget. We applaud his important steps in maintaining fiscal responsibility and avoiding tax increases.