SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly three years ago, then-candidate for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski called the sales tax increase linked to the controversial prison move "deplorable" and accused former Mayor Ralph Becker of working a "backroom" deal with legislators to get it.
But Wednesday, during her third State of the City address, Biskupski proposed exploring using that same sales tax increase to tackle tough issues in the city, calling it a "rare opportunity to create a transformational shift in how we address growth."
"By exercising this option now, Salt Lake City can create an ongoing fund to specifically address the growth issues we are facing in housing, transit, public safety, infrastructure and air quality," Biskupski said during her speech at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center.
"This funding would come not only from local residents but from those who visit and work in the capital city — ensuring all who use our infrastructure help pay for it," she said.
The sales tax option, included in the prison relocation bill HB454 passed in 2015, allows the city that ended up with the prison to increase its sales tax up to 0.5 percent, or 5 cents for every $10 spent.
In an interview after her speech, Biskupski acknowledged she had concerns about the way the tax was negotiated into the prison bill, but today the sales tax increase can be a "real opportunity for this city to rise up in a way we never have been able to before."
"Backroom deals, right, are not good," she said. "But we need to make good of that backroom deal. And this is our opportunity. We have planned for this. And if the voters of this community are supportive of moving ahead ... that will really jumpstart what we need to do," she said.
The tax increase would generate an estimated $35 million annually for Salt Lake City, according to city staff.
Biskupski said the tax would help the city invest in housing programs to "incentivize" development for "all income levels" and fund local transit to get "more buses in neighborhoods" and give people options so they can "get out of their cars and help clear the air."
The mayor also said the tax dollars could be used for public safety. Last month, the Salt Lake City Council voted to fund 50 newpolice officers amid strain from Operation Rio Grande — and at the time council members acknowledged it could mean some sort of tax increase.
Biskupski said in coming weeks her administration, working with the City Council, will begin an "outreach campaign to gauge the public's willingness to invest in the capital city by activating" the sales tax option.
But the sales tax hike is not the only revenue the mayor proposed exploring.
The mayor also said the city this year has another "rare opportunity" to ask voters for a bond of up to $87 million to provide one-time revenue to "significantly repair and replace our aging infrastructure" for about $5 per household per year.
Biskupski cited a recent study of road conditions in Salt Lake City that shows nearly 64 percent of the city's roads are rated as poor, very poor, serious or failed. Biskupski said last year one frustrated resident left a "pile of asphalt" with a note in her driveway.
"I won't read what was in the note, but suffice it to say, the resident's road needs fixing," she said.
If approved by voters, the bond, potentially combined with the sales tax increase, would allow the city to implement a 10-year plan "to make our streets better for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians," Biskupski said.
"These funding options create a unique opportunity to fully implement these plans giving Salt Lake City the ability to control its own destiny," the mayor added.
Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall lauded Biskupski for seeking public input on a sales tax increase and bond.
"I applaud her for taking the bold step of identifying new revenue that could meet basic and fundamental needs in our city that have long been deprived," Mendenhall said.
Newly elected City Council Vice Chairman Chris Wharton said it was "exciting" to see the mayor propose new ways to fund more transit options, affordable housing and public safety in the city — but he added: "We're going to do a lot of listening before we decide whether or not to implement this."
"But," Wharton noted, "this is really spurred because so many residents have said in a number of different ways that they support and would pay more if we could get serious infrastructure upgrades, and they would pay more for transit."
But least one council member already isn't too fond of Biskupski's proposal.
"People fail to remember the whole reason the prison tax was there was to mitigate the impact of the prison being on the west side," said Councilman James Rogers, who represents west Salt Lake City.
"If we're not looking for the type of things to help mitigate that impact or improve the livelihood on the west side with that tax, I don't think I could really get behind it — and that's not even mentioned in her speech," Rogers continued.
But Biskupski said it wouldn't make sense to funnel all of the sales tax revenue into one part of the city.
"The prison impacts the entire city," she said, adding that issues like transit "overlap into all" areas of the city, like connecting bus routes from the west to the east. "So we will have to spread that funding source to really implement the master plans that we have created."
Mendenhall noted that the sales tax option included in the prison relocation bill doesn't require the city to spend it on a certain portion of the city, though she added "I recognize that investments that benefit the west side, in particular, would likely get the greatest support."
Nothing's a done deal. Mendenhall said the council will be briefed on the possible new revenue streams during its meeting next Tuesday, and while the council weighs the options, "we will be sure to have public engagement all along the discussion path."
Mendenhall also noted that finding funds for transit, housing, public safety, housing and air quality have all come up before, so "this isn't a new conversation with the community ."
In her speech, Biskupski also focused on an array of accomplishments in the two years since she was elected — from her economic development team's efforts to bring more than 6,000 new jobs to the city from recruiting big businesses like Amazon to expanding the city's affordable housing stock.
"In the last two years alone, we invested just $6.2 million of trust funds and turned it into $154 million in private investment and 796 affordable units," Biskupski said. "That's an investment worth making."
Biskupski also highlighted public safety achievements, applauding Police Chief Mike Brown and his officers for helping keep crime down, even amid the difficulties from the Rio Grande area. She said the city ended 2017 with a 5.8 percent drop in overall crime.
"While Operation Rio Grande has created a transformational shift downtown, it has also stretched our police department's resources," Biskupski said. "Both the City Council and I are committed to easing this strain by providing more funding for additional police officers.
The mayor also said "no city can sustainably move forward without taking action on the housing crisis," and she credited her housing team for never losing "sight of the humanity behind this crisis."14 comments on this story
In February, the mayor said, she will transmit to the City Council a proposed ordinance that would require affordable housing to be addressed in every sale of city-owned land. She said in an interview after her speech that if affordable housing doesn't make sense on some sales, a fee will be required to be submitted in a fund for affordable housing.
Biskupski said two years ago, when she and her team "walked into City Hall with a vision to build a city for everyone, we certainly knew it wasn't going to be easy."
"It should not be surprising that change is difficult," Biskupski said. "And over the last two years, we have encountered our share of difficult times. But I can stand here today and say to you that we are seeing positive results from the change my team has brought to City Hall and to Salt Lake City."