On second thought, getting rid of free downtown parking on Saturdays and evenings may not be such a good idea.

The Salt Lake City Council has come under fire from local business owners and those who frequent downtown since the city officers suggested last week that parking meters remain active and expirations be enforced after 6 p.m. weekdays and all day on Saturdays.

"We might as well have thrown a brick through a stained-glass window," said Carlton Christensen, council vice chairman.

"The feedback has been pretty harsh," added Councilman Soren Simonsen.

And it appears to have changed council members' minds. Despite the need to find additional revenue in the budget to offset rising fuel costs, the council is expected at its meeting Tuesday to rule out charging for evening and Saturday parking as an option.

"Frankly, our downtown needs all the support it can get from us because of the conditions of construction," Councilman Eric Jergensen said, referring mainly to the former ZCMI Center and Crossroads Mall sites where the LDS Church's City Creek Center project is being built.

"Significant amounts of parking have been taken away," Jergensen said. "We need to do all we can to support those folks who want to come into downtown and shop."

Charging for parking on Saturdays and evenings would have boosted revenues in the 2008-09 fiscal year budget by an estimated $300,000. It's unclear where the council will look next to realize those funds, but cuts to city services and programs will be necessary, council members said.

The council is running out of time to plug a nearly $1 million hole in the $209 million proposed general fund budget. The gap has been created by rising fuel costs and the council's desire to maintain fire operations at station No. 5. The council has just two public meetings — Tuesday and July 17 — before the budget must to be approved under state law.

"We're at a point now where we're going to have to make some very uncomfortable cuts of nonessential city services," said Councilman JT Martin. "Whatever we do, we're going to upset somebody."

Fuel-cost estimates in February when first-year Mayor Ralph Becker was putting together his proposed budget are no longer valid because of the sharp increase in the price of oil in recent months.

David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff, said Friday that the most recent calculations indicate the mayor's budget, as presented to the council on May 6, underestimate the cost of fuel by about $470,000.

"It makes it hard to finalize a budget when your budgetary needs are changing hourly," Everitt said.

Becker's budget also calls for the elimination of fire operations at station No. 5, 1023 E. 900 South, and devote it exclusively to emergency medical response. On average, 80 percent of calls responded to by the station in 2007 were medical emergencies, according to the mayor.

The council wants the station to remain manned and able to respond to fires, which creates another $470,000 hole in the budget.

Jergensen said the council will have to get creative to overcome the shortfall, perhaps shifting some items listed as ongoing expenses to one-time funding.

For example, the mayor's budget calls for $103,000 to add 400 trees to the city. Jergensen suggests agreeing to one-time funding for the program and then seek matching funds from environmental groups such as TreeUtah to keep it going in subsequent years.

"We're balancing trees against fire stations," he said. "That is a fairly easy balance in my estimation."

Another option that likely won't be popular with the public is an administrative restructuring of the the city's youth programs, namely YouthCity. Some council members say administrative cuts could be made without sacrificing the momentum and success of the after-school and summer programs.

Several parents of children participating in YouthCity have spoken out at recent City Council meetings, requesting that the council grant the level of funding the program needs to sustain its level of service.

"We're spending over $1 million in overall youth programs," Christensen said. "They're important, but in the face of everything else, does it have to be $1 million? I think we have to have that discussion."

The mayor's office reportedly will make some suggestions during a council work session Tuesday about how some money can be saved in the youth programs, likely by consolidating or restructuring management positions.

Some council members have said they won't support cutting funding to YouthCity if it would result in harm to the services being provided to youth.

Councilman Van Turner ranks support for YouthCity as his No. 2 priority in the budget, right behind saving fire station No. 5.

"We need to make sure our youth programs are consistent and solid throughout the city," Turner said.

Simonsen said making cuts to fund increasing fuel costs — "throwing money at the problem" — is not a long-term solution. Ultimately, the city will need to look at a "major paradigm shift" and rethink how it uses its vehicles, he said.

"We're probably going to need to start thinking about fuel for essential services and start looking at other ways to meet the need for other kinds of services," Simonsen said.

Of the six council members reached for comment Friday, only first-year Councilman Luke Garrott said he would support a property tax increase to avoid having to carve into the budget. Becker did not propose a property tax hike.

"I've been in favor that this is the year to engage the citizenry in how serious they are about the mayor's quality-of-life improvements and whether they're in support of this budget," Garrott said. "If they are, we need to raise property taxes."

Attempts to reach council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love for comment Friday were unsuccessful.


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