Salt Lake County’s mayor has proposed a sensible budget for the coming year with some reasonable spending increases, but the fact that his proposal doesn’t raise taxes — something Mayor Ben McAdams has made a point of emphasizing — is hardly cause for public euphoria.
County property taxes shot up last year by more than 16 percent, and residents no doubt would prefer a budget that might lower levies now that economic conditions are improving. But then again, cases in which public administrators actually call for a reduction of taxes are more than scarce. Offering a budget that holds spending flat is like playing for a tie in a soccer match — it’s better than a loss, but it can’t be considered a victory.
Mayor McAdams’ first budget aims to give county employees a 2.5 percent raise and restore some retirement benefits lost as the county coped with lower revenues brought by the 2008 recession. It also calls for new spending on community theaters in West Valley City and Cottonwood Heights, and investments in a countywide 911 emergency dispatch system and a new public works operations center.
These expenditures are easily justified. County employees deserve cost-of-living pay adjustments, which they haven’t had in four years. Some community arts projects also are worthy of public support, although the case for them is more difficult to make. The mayor says his spending recommendations are based upon his desire to “prepare for a tomorrow of our choosing.” But some elaboration on that vision would be appreciated.
The county has millions in deferred maintenance needs, which was exacerbated last year as voters approved a bond to build more trails and parks. McAdams' budget includes about $17.5 million toward these needs in various areas, but the county should be careful about adding to its maintenance needs, especially during difficult times.
County taxpayers deserve a tomorrow in which they are served by a cost-efficient government whose spending patterns aren’t too strongly tied to changing economic conditions. County leaders were forced to approach the budgeting process in the last few years as an exercise in discriminating between essential and non-essential expenditures. A recession will do that to a county. It is a harsh but not unhealthy exercise to the extent it helps clarify what really constitutes a “lean” budget.
McAdams says his new budget is lean, and as proof he notes that he rejected $28 million in new spending requests forwarded by county department heads. It is interesting to note that those requests were made even after the mayor — to his credit — instructed county managers to search for opportunities to increase operational efficiencies and to resist the temptation to offer up a wish list for new spending.
The process demonstrates that “lean” is a subjective concept. The county can argue it is acting with an eye toward “lean” by not asking for new revenue. But in the big picture, it’s worth remembering that county residents already face a not-so-skinny tax burden. According to a 2012 analysis by the Utah Taxpayers Association based on Census data, Utah has the 16th highest state and local government tax and fee burden in the nation.
In his first term, the mayor has prepared a budget that is level headed and serviceable. But just because it is not obese does not make it lean. The mayor pledged to work toward making county government more efficient. The fact that he is not asking for new taxes doesn’t necessarily prove that process has so far been effective.