SOUTH SALT LAKE — In a rare move, some members of the South Salt Lake City Council have asked the mayor to cut $1 million out of her own administration's budget — which could result in layoffs — to pay for stormwater improvements and public safety salary increases.
That all comes before Mayor Cherie Wood has even presented her budget proposal, slated for Wednesday.
Four members of the South Salt Lake Council signed and sent a letter to the mayor on April 3 outlining the request.
The aim of the letter, according to one of the signees, was to send a message to the mayor that the majority of the council wouldn't support any increase in fees or taxes on residents to pay for undisputed needs, including expensive infrastructure upgrades or higher police and fire salaries.
Instead, those council members suggested the mayor should tighten her own staff budget, which has grown to nearly $2.2 million since she was elected.
The letter comes after the same four members of the council voted down a proposal from Wood's administration to implement a $4 a month user fee to help pay for improvements needed on the city's stormwater system to bring it up to state standards.
"We realize and fully expect some of these departments, especially administration, will possibly see a reduction in staffing to comply with this proposed budget outline," states the letter, obtained by the Deseret News on Friday. "We believe it is in the best interests of the residents to provide the services we require at the most efficient level possible and feel the above numbers reflect that."
But the council is divided on the issue. Though they represent a minority, three council members are not on board — and those three weren't told about the letter until after it was already signed.
Meanwhile, the mayor is calling the ask "a super simplistic notion to a very complex budget problem," while questioning the transparency of the council members' actions leading up to the letter and why they're targeting the $1 million out of her staff budget.
"I look forward to the budget process so more transparent conversations can occur so I can understand what they're trying to accomplish," Wood told the Deseret News on Friday. "Because right now it seems arbitrary and political."
Council Chairman Ben Pender said he wasn't available to comment on this story Friday, but referred the Deseret News to Council Vice Chairman Shane Siwik, who said the mayor "can call it whatever she wants to call it," but "the end result that we're shooting for is to avoid having to raise fees on residents, and we see (reducing) the doubling of her administrative budget over the last decade as the best way to take care of the needs that exist in our city today."
The four signees on the letter — Pender, Siwik, Councilman Mark Kindred and Councilwoman Corey Thomas — represent the majority of South Salt Lake's City Council, the body that controls the city's budget. Asked whether the council will cut the $1 million from the administrative budget regardless of what the mayor proposes in her budget, Siwik didn't say.
"I can't tell you what we will do until there's more dialogue, but it is our intent to balance the budget without raising new fees on residents, and whatever we have to do to meet that end, the four of us are committed to do," he said.
It's the latest episode of infighting within South Salt Lake City Hall, which over the years has had its fair share clashes, including when allegations of nepotism ripped open a rift between some council members and Wood.
When asked about the proposed $1 million cut, Wood said she'd unveil more details about her budget proposal when she presents it to the council on Wednesday. But she said such a cut would "cripple the city" because the administrative budget funds integral positions including the city recorder and other city departments.
In a written response Wood said she sent to the council the day after she received the letter, the mayor said she shared the council's priorities of stormwater improvements, public safety compensation and economic development.
"It's imperative that we address how to fund these needs in ways that don't reduce other important services to residents, a goal I hope council members share," the mayor wrote.
Wood said she's confident her budget proposal will address the city's needs in a fair way that will "benefit residents and businesses."
Meanwhile, the mayor said she remains in favor of a stormwater user fee, saying it would be the "right thing to do" because more than 30 percent of the city's properties are tax exempt. A fee would spread out the cost on system users and lessen the hit on taxpaying residents.
Asked about potential layoffs if the council proceeds with the $1 million cut and if that could impact city morale, Siwik said he's "more concerned about the morale of the community than the morale of (the mayor's) administrative staff."
Councilwoman Portia Mila, one of the three who did not sign the letter, said she didn't know about it until after it was presented during a recent council meeting — questioning why some council members crafted the letter without looping in other members — but said even if she had been asked to sign it, she wouldn't.Comment on this story
"I don't think cutting the administration's budget in half is the way to go," she said. "Sure we've got some things we've got to come up with to have a balanced budget, but I don't think that's a fair way to go about it."
Mila said she'd be supportive of a stormwater fee because it would make sense for the city. "Sure it's not a popular thing, but sometimes you have to do things like that to have the services that you need," she said.
Mila noted several council seats are up for election this year, including hers, but "I'm going to do what's right for the city," and "if that's going to affect me getting re-elected, that's not going to be my top priority."