SOUTH SALT LAKE A majority of South Salt Lake City Council members decided Wednesday to forgo discussion on next year's proposed budget, saying that in doing so they were showing support for the mayor and administration.
The unusual move sparked vehement opposition and left both the voting public and the council with little information to go on in preparation for next week's public hearing.
The final budget must be adopted by June 22.
The three council members who opposed the motion Mike Rutter, John Weaver and Casey Fitts argued with the four-member majority for nearly an hour, saying the budget was the council's main policy tool.
While the council argued, several city employees waited in the audience for a chance to present and answer questions, as they have in years past. They never got that chance.
Council member Shane Siwik led the move to press on without public discussion. Last year, department heads were subjected to a "Spanish Inquisition" of criticism that lasted until almost 2 a.m., he said. The appointed officials left feeling micromanaged and distrusted, he added.
Following $180,000 in painstaking budget cuts during the 2007-08 budget cycle, a last-minute motion allocated $200,000 to a mayoral contingency fund, Siwik said. Time, energy and good will were wasted, he said. Siwik's comments were echoed by council chairman Ray Turner.
"The responsibility of the council is to balance those needs between departments," retorted Weaver, denying claims that city department heads had already completed their budget process with the mayor. "Cities, municipalities, are not in the position to grant department heads all they request."
The clash was the latest in a series of arguments that has pitted council members against one another in recent months. In March, the council called an emergency meeting to consider censuring Siwik for comments he made to reporters. The council never voted on the censure but expressed at the time that trust had been abandoned.
Though no official discussion took place, a few important budget concerns were mentioned. Siwik voiced concern over dipping into the city's reserve fund.
Part of his motion to accept the budget asked that money saved in any department be put directly into the reserve fund. He hoped to show the public that fiscal responsibility is important to the council, he said.
Weaver raised concerns about providing a cost-of-living salary adjustment of only 2 percent for city employees. No merit raise will be offered, and Weaver is concerned about losing trained workers to higher-paying cities.
Weaver also said that the providing council members with full medical and retirement benefits packages is unwise. Council members are part-time employees who should not be reliant on their city compensation, he said. Weaver was also upset that the benefits packages had not been made public. Only four council members accept the packages, but they cost taxpayers at least as much as the $965 monthly stipend, he said.
Other issues concerned garbage collection fees and the city's fleet purchases.
Overall, council members said the $21.5 million budget was very conservative. The budget projects increases in fuel taxes across the board but is estimating a decrease in sales tax revenues. Property taxes will not be increased.
Residents can pick up a spreadsheet-style tentative budget at the South Salt Lake offices, 220 E. Morris Ave. They can comment on the budget Wednesday at 6 p.m. in council chambers.Council members may discuss the budget with city staff following the public hearing. The door isn't closed on discussions, Siwik said.