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SALT LAKE CITY — Determined to dramatically increase the city's police force, the Salt Lake City Council may seek a tax increase next year to pay for it.
The council Tuesday night informally voted to support a surprise proposal to add 50 more police officers to the city's department — nearly double what Police Chief Mike Brown and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski had requested earlier this year.
"Merry Christmas!" City Councilman Stan Penfold jokingly told Brown shortly before the surprise straw poll, which passed unanimously.
"I didn't see that coming," Brown said afterward, laughing, adding that the proposal left him a "little bit shocked."
But he didn't complain. In an interview after the vote, the chief welcomed the council's enthusiasm for more officers, noting that it would bring his force up from 453 to 503.
"I really do feel like for many years we've tried to do more with less," Brown said, adding that he intends to meet with the mayor and the council over the next few weeks to learn more.
The proposal, pitched by Councilman Charlie Luke, would require a nearly $5 million amendment to this year's budget — scheduled for a formal vote next week — and about $4.5 million in ongoing revenue starting next year.
"I fully anticipate that this motion could potentially require a tax increase for public safety," Luke said. "That is something I think we all take very, very seriously and I think we can have this discussion in the coming months as we move forward with the upcoming budget."
Luke's proposal comes about two weeks after the council reviewed Brown and Biskupski's request for 27 police officers amid strain from Operation Rio Grande, the two-year, multi-agency effort to gain and maintain control of the area around the troubled downtown homeless shelter.
Since Operation Rio Grande's August launch, surrounding Salt Lake City neighborhoods such as Liberty Wells and Ballpark have complained of a perceived increase in issues involving the homeless as well as crime and burglaries and a lack of regular police as officers focus their efforts in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
"I'm excited to move ahead with this," said Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, adding that based off conversations with her constituents, she doesn't believe residents will oppose a tax increase if it funds more police officers on the streets and in neighborhoods impacted by Operation Rio Grande.
"That shift of resources away in order to fill our commitment to Operation Rio Grande was basically immediately felt by that neighborhood and that community," she said. "We can't afford to keep shifting."
Councilman Derek Kitchen also expressed support for the proposal — but not without acknowledging concern of its cost.
"The impact to the budget is serious, so I have a concern there," he said. "But our foundational role is to ensure the public health and well-being, including public safety. And in light of Operation Rio Grand and a number of things that have happened in the city over the last couple of years, there really is a deficit in a feeling of safety among our residents."
"The feeling of insecurity is very real and I feel this is an important step for us to take," Kitchen continued. "But I just want to make sure we acknowledge this is a serious budgetary issue we will need to address in the near future."
Though council members are expressing unanimous support for the proposal, nothing has been formally adopted. Next week's scheduled vote will only address this year's budget amendment, and any tax increase would have to be discussed and approved in the city's budget discussions for next year.
The mayor typically proposes a budget in May, while the council must approve the budget in June.
It's also not clear what kind of tax increase the proposal would require. The City Council has the power to increase property taxes — but it also has the option to raise sales tax thanks to a state law passed in 2015 that let the city that ended up with the new Utah State Prison to increase its sales tax up to 0.5 percent.
"We're going to be looking at every (option)," Luke said in an interview, adding that the type of tax used will have to be hashed out during budget discussions.
Though the council doesn't necessarily need her blessing, it's not clear how the mayor stands on the 50-officer proposal and a potential tax increase. She was, however, fully behind Brown's 27-officer request.
Biskupski didn't attend Tuesday's meeting, but her spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the mayor will need to gather more information about the proposal and whether the need is backed up by data, but she will welcome additional conversations.
"I think everybody's saying the same thing: that we need more officers," Rojas said. "We're all committed to getting a proper number of officers on our streets."