As Salt Lake County commissioner Mike Stewart noted, Friday night's sparsely attended public hearing on the county's tentative 1989 budget has already assured commissioners of a merry Christmas.
With one exception, those who addressed commissioners during the 90-minute hearing praised the $227 million budget, which holds spending $5 million below this year's figure and keeps county property tax rates and revenues at 1988 levels.A Utah Public Employees Association representative and a firefighters union official commended a $4 million wage-and-benefit-increase package contained in the budget that includes a 4 percent merit raise for county workers.
Jack Olson, director of the Utah Taxpayers Association and a driving force behind the failed tax limitation initiatives, praised commissioners for holding spending down and taking a hard line against tax hikes.
Even Sheriff Pete Hayward - whose budget battles with commissioners in past years are legend - apparently likes the tentative budget. Hayward was conspicuous Friday night by his absence at the hearing, although he was represented by members of his administration.
Olsen said the owner of an $80,000 home in the unincorporated county will pay an average of $357 in taxes for county services next year. In cities, the figure will be about $222. Those numbers represent only the county's portion of property taxes. School districts, cities and special taxing districts will add their own property tax levies to those totals.
Only former state legislator Sam Taylor kept the praise for the tentative budget from being unanimous. Taylor again urged commissioners to explore a "house arrest" program to punish convicted misdemeanor offenders, rather than build an $8 million minimum security jail, as commissioners plan.
Commission chairman Bart Barker said some changes may yet be made in the tentative budget before commissioners officially adopt it next Thursday, and tax rates won't be set until June. But any budget changes will not deviate from the commission's intent to keep the lid on taxes next year, unless voters approve a tax hike to pay for the new jail, he said.
"We can't promise there won't be any tax increases in the next five years, but that's our goal and we're working toward it," Barker said in the commission's 1989 budget message.
Barring emergencies, the county's five-year budget plan through 1993 projects level tax rates during that period, unless voters approve tax hikes. Because tax revenues are projected to increase only through new growth, there will be a "major increase in the commitment to economic development" with a detailed proposal to follow soon, Barker promised.
But in the 1989 budget, the economic development line item remained at the $105,000 figure budgeted this year. There is $1 million in the budget to start work on the new jail, $200,000 to fund a productivity analysis of county services, another $200,000 for a possible start on a new downtown arena, about $300,000 for stronger drug enforcement and $285,000 for sidewalk construction, up from $100,000 this year.
But the 1989 spending plan also cuts the county's highways budget for the fourth straight year. The county simply doesn't have enough revenues in the municipal services fund, which pays for services provided to the 285,000 residents of unincorporated Salt Lake County, Barker said.
"Future cuts may begin to erode our ability to maintain existing roads," he said in the budget message, although commissioners have said next year's highway spending cuts probably won't cause a discernable decline in services.