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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Council held its nose Friday and passed its first property tax increase since the new form of government was installed 11 years ago, with some members acknowledging that time had simply run its course through multiple years of austere penny-pinching.
"Fiscal responsibility is not just cutting," County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said. "This government has already cut significantly."
In his endorsement of the 16.2 percent increase built into the county's $785 million budget for 2013, Bradshaw pointed to years of painful reductions in the budget, including slicing $45.6 million since 2009 and eliminating 232 full-time positions.
The tax increase, vocally protested by many residents in a Thursday public hearing, works out to be a $59 increase per yer for the average homeowner, in addition to a separate annual hike of $18 to go to public libraries.
Two Salt Lake County Council members, Richard Snelgrove and Chairman David Wilde, voted against the increases, with both emphasizing there were other alternatives.
"It could have been avoided," Snelgrove said. "This was something that was not necessary."
Snelgrove said the county could have continued to rein in its spending even more, tightening services in some arenas, delaying the implementation of any new programs and holding off on a budget that includes restoring 40 positions to the county payroll.
"I've felt this is not the right time given the current economic climate," he said.
Other council members, however, said the belt had been pulled so tight over the past decade that vital programs and services would implode without adding more revenue to the tax rolls.
"I've lost sleep … over this decision to raise taxes or make drastic cuts in the services we provide to the county," Councilman Steve DeBry said.
DeBry said he's loath to approve a tax increase that will have to be paid by his elderly mother or physically disabled son, and blamed bad county management, lack of leadership, the recession or a combination of all three that thrust the county into its current fiscal predicament.
Still, he said he was opposed to closing senior citizen centers, which he said are often the social savior of the elderly. He was just as reluctant to reduce drug court services, which he said can haul addicts out of despair to new lives.
"These services have a huge ripple effect on our community," DeBry said. "In the long run, they save our community money and make it a better place to be."
The county's budget is $2.5 million less than what outgoing Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon had proposed. When it was unveiled in November, Corroon pushed for a 17.5 percent tax hike to help fuel a $788 million budget.