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Salt Lake County mayor again prioritizes Oxbow Jail, public safety in 2019 budget proposal

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Updated - Oct. 23, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. | Posted - Oct. 23, 2018 at 12:39 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the heat of his tight congressional race against Rep. Mia Love, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on Tuesday announced his 2019 budget proposal with new money for public safety, but without a tax increase.

McAdams called his proposal "structurally balanced," "fiscally sound," and one that prioritizes public safety, "a core responsibility to the people we serve."

The $1.5 billion plan, subject to approval by the Salt Lake County Council, included a renewed commitment of an additional $1.3 million to fully fund the opening of Oxbow Jail, in addition to the $7.4 million funded by the county last year.

The mayor also proposed $3.4 million to help Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera hire and retain public safety officers — an issue the sheriff has struggled with recently. Earlier this year, Oxbow wasn't on track to fully open because the sheriff faced staffing shortages due to difficulty competing with other agencies offering higher pay.

The $3.4 million would contain a 2.75 percent pay increase to help increase retention and address "pay compression" issues, where a small pay difference exists between employees despite greater skills or experience, McAdams said.

"Today, we face a new challenge," McAdams said. "Although fiscal discipline and commitment from Sheriff Rivera, council members and state partners has created a financial way forward to opening more jail space, what we now need are staff to work there."

The Oxbow Jail is designed to handle misdemeanor offenders. It was mothballed years ago after the opening of the new Salt Lake County Jail, but was partially reopened in 2009 amid an overcrowding crisis.

Now, facing more overcrowding, Salt Lake County leaders have been looking to fully open all 552 of Oxbow's jail beds. Even though McAdams called for a full opening in his 2018 budget proposal, 184 beds as of July cannot be used due to staffing issues, Rivera said.

Of McAdams' proposal this year, Rivera said, "it's not everything, but we're happy with what we did get."

"There was a lot we had to cut out," the sheriff said, "but this is the priority, and I really feel like we have to compensate the people that are here because we keep losing people."

Rivera said she had also asked for more command staff positions, but she understood that dealing with the pay compression issues had to come first. Recently, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's office had 114 open positions. Of those, 48 have so far been filled, Rivera said, but "we're still down a lot," by about 80 spots.

With the new funding, Rivera hopes the remaining Oxbow beds will be open sometime next year.

To fund the new public safety money, McAdams proposed to cut $200,000 from the county government center security operating hours, meaning the building will no longer operate 24/7, but instead close late at night and open early in the morning — a change McAdams said people likely won't notice.

McAdams also offered his condolences to the family of Lauren McCluskey, the University of Utah student who police say was killed in a shooting Monday night, while proposing to set aside $500,000 to "bolster public safety and put law-breaking criminals behind bars," looking to the council to decide the specific direction of the funds.

"Public safety is my top priority," McAdams said.

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McAdams, however, cited challenges facing Salt Lake County despite a strong economy. He noted the county's tax rate has consistently gone down over the past five years.

"We all know that, in a growing economy and in a county with a fast-growing population like ours, our tax rate will go down even though revenues stay flat," he said. "But our responsibilities are never flat."

Though revenue projections for 2019 are "up slightly," McAdams said, home prices are up by nearly 12 percent since the beginning of 2018 and the jobless rate is down.

Though the county projects some new growth from property and sales taxes, "inflationary increases to expenses such as health care and wages outpace the new revenue," he said.

"Once again, we must find efficiencies and streamline our budget in order to live within our means and not raise taxes," McAdams said.

So, while "taking a scalpel-like approach to where we can do the same with less," McAdams said his budget team cut new requests by nearly $18 million to balance the budget.

Although the overall budget is up from $1.3 billion last year, the $1.5 billion figure wasn't from revenue growth, but rather library budgeting that was adjusted by the council earlier this year, $32 million in bond repayments, and spending for capital projects such as the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center slated to break ground in Taylorsville next month, according to McAdams' office.

The county saw $12.3 million in natural revenue growth, according to Darrin Casper, the county's chief financial officer, but inflation related expenditures for salaries, benefits and health insurance exceeded that, totaling $14.8 million.

In McAdams' race for Congress, his opponent, Love, has accused him of raising taxes every year as mayor, even though McAdams has said he has lowered the tax rate. Technically, the tax rate has fluctuated under the state's truth-in-taxation laws, not due to a county tax hike. Also, county taxes may have decreased in 2015 had a bond been allowed to retire, but the County Council approved McAdams' proposal to extend the levy for $9.4 million a year for criminal justice reform.

On first impression, Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she didn't see anything particularly concerning or surprising in the mayor's budget proposal.

"We always look forward to spending the next several weeks diving in and looking at the budget, and the devil's in the details, really," she said, noting that it's "hard to know" until the County Council dives in.

Newton also said it wasn't surprising to see extra money for Oxbow or to help the sheriff retain staff.

"Our council's been committed to more jail beds since last year, and we know that's a top priority for us," she said.

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