City Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck says Salt Lake City should consider raising taxes to provide the services city residents say are so essential.
Even whispering about a tax increase is bold in a year during which the tax reform movement has gained steamroller force in Utah and is expected to be a major influence in the state's gubernatorial election.Not only did Mayor Palmer DePaulis not recommend a tax hike, but the $80.3 million financial package for the next budget year he presented to the council is 1.5 percent less than last year's adopted budget.
Fonnesbeck, who has been on the City Council since the city changed its form of government in 1980, has been outspoken about her intention not to run again next year.
Her contention - that taxpayers are willing to pay a little bit more for essential city services - doesn't sit well with some of her colleagues.
First-year Councilman Alan Hardman, for instance, wants to cut some $1.5 million out of the city's budget, enough to eliminate the $4 monthly garbage fee, levied last year.
And Roselyn Kirk, who Fonnesbeck likes to characterize as the council's resident tightwad, has repeatedly expressed her pipe dream of returning some tax money to city residents.
In the arena of governmental finance, the big buzzword is "priorities." That's the explanation given when officials are asked why some city services are cut at the expense of others. That's also the explanation of why the city has more than $80 million to play with and yet doesn't have enough to fund the wish lists of city bosses.
The City Council, in three lengthy meetings each week, is scrutinizing DePaulis' $80.3 million general fund budget recommendation for the next fiscal year. The council will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6:20 p.m. May 24 before adopting the city's financial plan June 9.
DePaulis, a Democrat, recommended so many cuts in his 1988-89 budget proposal that he says - with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek - that he feels like he's become a Republican.
He hated to make the cuts, he said, but believes they were necessary because the city's revenue outlook hasn't improved.
He wouldn't say that his proposal was designed to be a coalition-buster, to break up the four-member council majority that has spoken out in powerful opposition to many of his administration's policies. But DePaulis does admit his budget was carefully crafted, and that all members of the City Council will need each other's support in order to pass it.
"I don't want four votes out there that hurt the city. I want the best budget I can get in tough times," the mayor said.
His recommended cuts have been political hot potatoes. Both police and fire unions are steaming. City employees, who have gone without cost-of-living raises for three years, won't even get merit raises this year, stripping the credibility of the city's seniority pay system. In addition, city employees' paychecks will seem significantly less because of a 20 percent hike in insurance premiums.
The mayor also wants to save money by closing an eastside fire station while a new one is built and shutting off mid-block traffic lights on busy streets. Especially controversial has been his plan to cut 3 percent from all city departmental budgets, shaving the crime analysis and crime prevention units from the police department.
Both units were praised as innovative in a recent outside management audit of the department.
So far, after about half of the city's departments have presented their proposed budgets, most of the council members have agreed that they want to cut other programs to find $259,000 to restore the police department's crime analysis and crime prevention programs. They've also agreed, at the cost of $28,600, to add back a staff position in the city's animal control division to handle public relations and humane education duties.
Councilman Willie Stoler is talking about cutting the city's travel budget in half in order to pay $600,000 to fund raises for city employees.
Kirk would like to find $325,000 to keep two eastside fire stations open until a new, consolidated station is built. And Hardman wants to come up with enough in savings elsewhere, at least $1.5 million, to eliminate the garbage fee.
In every council meeting, Kirk repeatedly chides her colleagues about their costly budget wish lists. "We just keep adding and adding and adding to the budget, saying, `Don't worry, we'll find it.' Well, I'm worried. I can't see it anywhere."
So far, the total of the wish lists expressed by individual council members is more than $2.7 million.
That's adds up to a lot of "priorities."
And hearing that number is what makes Fonnesbeck's mention of a tax increase - despite its inevitable political unpopularity - sound more realistic.