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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A law enforcement official walks outside the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office in South Salt Lake Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — The third hiring freeze since 2008 is in place in Salt Lake County government as county officials work to close a projected $17 million shortfall in the $250 million budget for 2012.

Estimates beyond 2012 don't look much brighter, leaving Mayor Peter Corroon to project that the rising costs to the county of things like fuel and healthcare will continue to outstrip revenues from property taxes for several more years.

"Even with the economy coming back slightly, that's not going to solve our budget issues," Corroon said Wednesday. County departments are being asked to present 2012 proposals that trim their budgets by 6 percent.

Perhaps the most visible impacts will be seen in the sheriff's and district attorney's offices, Corroon said. "What the (County Council) asked the sheriff and D.A. to do is give them some indication of what a 6 percent cut would look like."

"A 6 percent cut means layoffs," Sheriff Jim Winder said, estimating he'd have to cut 60 people from his department. Unified Police Department operations would not be affected; cuts would have to come from jail and protective services.

"In 2008, we cut $11 million, and it didn't resolve the problem. In 2009 we cut $14 million," Winder said. "The fat is long gone, the bone is now being nipped into, and we're talking about lopping off limbs."

Reducing the jail staff by the amounts in the current discussion would mean reducing the jail's capacity by 180 beds, the sheriff said.

Among the casualties could be the 4-acre garden at the jail, which generates revenue for jail programs and provides a training opportunity where prisoners can be certified as master gardeners, creating job opportunities for them at the end of their jail sentence.

But money raised from the garden cannot be used to pay the salaries of the officers who patrol the prisoners working there. The garden sat unused for two years, for budget reasons, before being put back into operation this past year.

Winder said the current talk is a worst-case scenario. He believes the county could reduce the shortfall by cutting into reserves. The casualty then might be the county's bond rating, not personnel, he said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said a 6 percent cut would actually be an 11 percent cut to his budget because of deficits he inherited when he took office. In personnel terms, Gill said cuts could cost him 31 people from a staff of about 250, or 14 percent, affecting both civil and criminal work.

"The bottom line is the judge is not going to care that I have a budgetary challenge, the victim is not going to care that I have a budgetary challenge, the families of victims are not going to care if I have a budgetary challenge," he said.

Both Gill and Winder pointed to changes in the economy in the 10 years since the county raised property taxes as a reason their budgets are continually losing ground.

"Every department believes that their function is critical, and they are. But at the end of the day, we're all going to have to do something to get this budget balanced," Corroon said.

Employee salaries and benefits are a significant portion of the county's general fund budget, and the portion over which the county has the most control, the mayor said. "We're a service business, and people provide those services."

The Salt Lake County Council approved a resolution Tuesday putting the hiring freeze in place. The sanitation and solid-waste divisions are being handled differently since they work on fee-based budgets, and those departments are not included in the hiring freeze.

The council will consider hiring exceptions during the freeze. "If critical positions need to be filled, they'll just have to go through extra hoops," Corroon said.

The budgeting process continues through November with the next year's budget taking effect Jan. 1.

"So we're really pretty early in the process here. We recognize we're in a difficult situation, so we wanted to start early and take any initial actions now before the budget year begins," Corroon said of the decision to announce the hiring freeze now. "We'll start the freeze this year to save jobs for next year."

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