Becker’s budget foresees more revenue, but higher costs
By christopher smart
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 24 2012 07:03PM
A better year lies ahead, but Salt Lake City plans to continue its frugal ways.
Mayor Ralph Becker broadly outlined a tight budget before the City Council Tuesday night, promising no increase in property taxes but a continuation of "excellent service and facilities."
City employees would get a 1 percent increase in salary. No layoffs or personnel increases are envisioned.
Becker said the city "has been able to navigate the waters of the worst fiscal crisis of our lifetimes without adding property taxes, except when our residents voted for the Public Safety Building."
And Salt Lake City has retained its coveted AAA bond rating.
Becker foresees a more vibrant downtown, an improving transportation system and continued protection of watersheds and natural resources.
"Our city’s future is bright," he said.
The budget itself will be delivered to the City Council on May 1 and is expected to come in at about $204 million, an increase of 4.6 percent from this fiscal year’s budget of $195 million.
The uptick in projected revenues is due partly to the opening of City Creek Center and other new businesses, the mayor said.
"Now, as we look ahead, the first glimmer of sustained recovery is in sight," he said. "There is no reason to doubt that a prosperous year is ahead for Salt Lake City."
But the modest jump in revenues will have to be spent on rising costs in fuel and employee medical and retirement benefits. City workers paid more for medical and retirement benefits during the current fiscal year that ends June 30.
"Had we not made changes in city operations in the area of health and retirement, the impact could have been devastating this year," he said. "And even with those changes, we still face increases in expenses that must be addressed, expenses that offset our improving economic conditions."
Becker has asked his department heads to come up with budgets that reflect a 2 percent decrease from this year.
"We went through the budget line by line with cuts and funding for unmet needs," he said. "It was a very surgical approach, rather than across-the-board cuts."
Becker’s address was short on specifics, but he did note the city would "catch up" on $11.5 million in deferred projects, such as fleet replacement and repairs to streets and sidewalks.
The mayor praised city employees for doing more with less and said his budget sought to recognize and reward them. Becker said his administration is in the process of implementing a new pay system based on merit, rather than longevity.
"Our employees have performed well," he said.
Nonetheless, the city must continue to look for efficiencies in providing services. Becker pointed to re-evaluation of the city’s recycling system that he says will save millions. He wants to review other municipal functions. He asked the council to work with him to "conduct an in-depth analysis of the capital project program to determine the most cost-effective approach to meeting our design and engineering needs."
The mayor also said he would continue to work with the Legislature in an effort to help city taxpayers offset costs of being Utah’s capital, where the population doubles during the workday.
"We recognize that our full-time residents subsidize the daily population influx," he said. "We will be focusing new energy on working with the governor and the Legislature to find a more equitable solution."
The City Council will have six or seven weeks to massage the budget before it votes to approve it.
Councilman Kyle LaMalfa, who joined the council in January, said he’s looking forward to seeing the details in Becker’s budget but noted that he’s pleased employees will get raises. "They’ve made sacrifices," he said.
And LaMalfa said he’s excited to hear the mayor is looking for new efficiencies, particularly in engineering. "I’ve questioned the cost of engineering," he said. "It’s out of line in my experience."
Among budget challenges, said Council Chairman Soren Simonsen, will be which capital projects to fund, although he embraced the mayor’s proposal to catch up with projects that have been deferred.
"I don’t think there were any surprises," Simonsen said of the mayor’s address. "The good news is things have stabilized, there is even a slight uptick in revenues and that is very encouraging."
That means this year’s budget process will be smoother than it has been for several years.