South Salt Lake mayor proposes 31 percent property tax hike to give police, firefighters pay raises

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood wants to give her city's police officers and firefighters a substantial raise — but it's a bill taxpayers would need to foot.

To pay for it, Wood on Wednesday night proposed to the City Council a 31 percent property tax hike — one that would bring in about $1.6 million and cost the average South Salt Lake homeowner an additional $71 per year on their property tax bill.

"The city has avoided raising property taxes since 2006 in spite of rising costs," Wood wrote in a memo to the City Council issued Wednesday night. "The increase in property tax revenue will only be applied to first responder wage increases."

The aim, the mayor wrote, was to bring South Salt Lake police and firefighter pay in line with what other agencies across the Wasatch Front pay.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski made a similar move Tuesday night, with even the capital city struggling to retain police officers.

Wood's memo referenced a recent Unified Police Department salary survey indicating that South Salt Lake officers are paid about 15 percent less than other agencies, and said the pay raise would help South Salt Lake "compete more effectively in hiring new employees and, more importantly, retain experienced employees."

But it's not clear whether a majority of the City Council will support the tax hike.

Four members of the seven-member council recently sent the mayor a letter asking she cut $1 million from her own administrative budget to pay for public safety salary increases and other priorities.

One council member, Council Vice Chairman Shane Siwik, told the Deseret News last week those members of the council are committed to balancing the budget without raising new fees on residents, and they view a cut to the mayor's administrative budget "as the best way to take care of the needs that exist in our city today."

The four signees on the letter — Council Chairman Ben 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 and could have the power to block the proposed tax hike.

Pender said the council needs to consider "all options" and he's not going to "rubber stamp" the budget until he's had the chance to delve into the details.

"Anything short of that, I think that is a mistake on our behalf to not look at everything," he said.

To vocalize your support of public safety while at the same time vowing not to raise taxes is intellectually dishonest. You know that there’s not the (money) to pay for it and the only way to pay for it is to increase the tax.

–Matt Oehler

Pender in an interview later Wednesday stopped short of supporting or opposing the property tax hike, saying he needed to dive into the details.

"It's going to be a very tough budget year," he said.

A crowd of police officers that lined rows of chairs in the City Council chambers Wednesday night cheered after Matt Oehler, president of South Salt Lake Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15, urged the council to support a major first responder pay raise, saying South Salt Lake is at a “breaking point.”

“This is a critical issue. We have to save retention in this city,” Oehler said, noting that South Salt Lake’s police patrol division has seen a loss of about 30 percent of officers leaving to other agencies.

Oehler said the police force was relieved to see the state fund 12 new police officers to help manage the new homeless resource center set to open later this year — but he said South Salt Lake “needed those 12 officers long before that shelter was announced.”

“I’ve been patrolling these streets for 12 years,” he said. “And I can tell you unequivocally we’ve been understaffed and underpaid.”

Oehler said previous, smaller pay hikes have simply kept “our heads above water,” and “we are still the lowest paid public safety agency.”

“To vocalize your support of public safety while at the same time vowing not to raise taxes is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “You know that there’s not the (money) to pay for it and the only way to pay for it is to increase the tax.”

Siwik, who was criticized by Oehler for considering the option of lowering costs by contracting with other police agencies, said he too wants to simply consider all options before resorting to any tax or fee increases.

Wood ignored the council's $1 million cut ask in her budget proposal. After her budget presentation, the mayor explained why she did not include it.

She asserted the letter violates state code because those "deep cuts" would "interfere with my duty to keep the peace, enforce the laws, and execute the policies adopted by the council."

The mayor also said the letter violated the "spirit" of open meetings laws, saying the "discussion surrounding the demands made in the letter included a quorum of the council, yet did not occur in a public meeting and was not transparent."

Lastly, the mayor said the $1 million cut also concerned her because it would impact five positions — of which, four out of five are currently occupied by women. She noted the cut would "make dramatic cuts to administration (which is largely female) to fund increases for police and fire (which are largely male)" and could put the city at risk for "potential disparate impact claims" by a protected class of employees.

Pender, who said he considers himself an advocate for equality, said he was "offended" that the mayor suggested the council was favoring one class of employees over another. "It's not a male or female issue, it's the matter of the budget," he said.

He said the mayor's allegation the letter violates the spirit of the open meetings laws was "not true," noting a quorum was never present during the drafting of the letter.

The council set the public hearing for the proposed budget on June 5.

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