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SALT LAKE CITY — A tax hike may be on Salt Lake County's horizon.
As she prepares for her first budget proposal as mayor this fall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is again facing what county leaders have been dealing with for years — an ever-tightening budget with flat revenues.
During a recent public meeting this month when she addressed those flat revenues, the mayor indicated talk of a tax increase is already happening, and there's support among some county leaders.
However, the mayor told the Deseret News she isn't yet prepared to propose a property tax hike this year or next.
But she's not ruling it out, either.
"It remains to be seen, and I'm not saying in this moment in time that we're going to go there ... but it's on our radar," Wilson said.
What taxpayers and county department heads can expect for the coming budget year, Wilson said, is a request from her administration to cut department budgets by at least 5% — a steep ask from previous years, which have most recently been 3%, Wilson said. A memo requesting that cut circulated last week.
"We're asking each division to do more with less," Wilson said. "But at some point, year after year, you're done with those efficiencies."
The mayor's comments come after she said during a July 10 public meeting with the county's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board that she was willing to support a tax increase as she was explaining the county's dwindling revenue.
"For the same reason that the state is in a pickle as it relates to declining sales tax revenue and not taxing services, we're facing some impacts and not seeing the sales tax revenues as they were in the past at the rate they were in the past," Wilson said.
"So with that, our budget is completely flat," she said, noting that she's asking each department to slash budgets by 5 percent heading into 2020.
"So the question becomes is the council willing, and am I, to have a tax increase? The answer is yes," Wilson said. "But I've got to get votes from the council. And at what level."
At the same time, Wilson said the county could consider a general obligation bond to help pay for open space projects, a question that would go before voters and could result in a property tax hike.
"I have to share in the political ramifications for a tax increase and an open space bond for the council," Wilson said. "So it's sort of like a general conversation and what is all of our tolerance."
Wilson indicated Democrats — which make up a narrow minority on the council — would support a general obligation bond, but maybe not Republicans, who hold the majority.
"The Democrats have been much better at moving these things without a lot of drama. The Republicans, not so much," she said.
Wilson then discussed timing, whether a possible tax increase next year may push a possible general obligation bond to 2021.
Asked about those comments, Wilson told the Deseret News she's not ready to propose any tax increase yet, but pointed to other cities this year rolling out significant tax hikes to pay for police and firefighters and other priorities as cost of living continues to increase and as many have gone years without raising taxes to adjust for inflation. Salt Lake County, she said, is in the same boat.
"I'm really sympathetic because we, like they, are faced with a policy that prevents us from collecting inflation every year," she said, pointing to the state's current truth-in-taxation law, which requires municipalities to hold public hearings before adjusting the tax rate — a process that is often painful for politicians and fraught with political ramifications.
"Sooner or later we need to be able to collect that inflationary revenue," Wilson said.
"That's what remains to be seen," she said.
Either way, it's going to be a tough budget year for the new county mayor, though it's hardly her first rodeo when it comes to budgeting thanks to her prior experience on the council. Whatever she ultimately proposes will be unveiled in her budget proposal in October.
For now, Wilson said she wants "everyone to know I'm very committed to good, solid fiscal policy," and county officials are working to pinpoint every budget efficiency possible.
As for the County Council, a possible property tax hike would, predictably, face pushback.
Salt Lake County Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove said Friday the county "shouldn't even be thinking about a tax increase until we've exhausted every possible opportunity to economize and seek greater efficiencies."
"I feel it's way premature to be floating a property tax increase," he said, adding that he doesn't think it's "inevitable."
"It's a last resort, "he said.
As for a general obligation bond, that's essentially the same issue, Richard said.
"A bond is a tax increase. And so the devil's in the details," he said. "We'll have to see what the mayor proposes."