Kristin Murphy, KSL

Salt Lake County mayor proposes balanced 2021 budget in midst of 'brutal' pandemic

By Daedan Olander, KSL | Posted - Oct. 20, 2020 at 8:24 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson presented a balanced budget proposal for 2021 that focused on fiscal conservatism and flexibility heading into an uncertain new year.

Significant budget cuts in 2020, including a $78 million cut to the base budget in June, will likely transfer over to 2021, according to a news release.

"In order to address the budget and operational needs of this next year, we need to reflect on the year behind us," Wilson told the Salt Lake County Council Tuesday.

Salt Lake County has declared five separate emergencies in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and civil unrest. Despite this, the county has reported strong revenues, Wilson said, and is currently in a better place than was expected six months ago.

The county's general economic recovery is "literally one of the best in the country," Wilson said. She credited Salt Lake County's economic diversity, its initial pandemic response and the hard work of its employees for its relatively favorable economic position.

The economic outlook for the county is also positive, with slight growth predicted countywide and unemployment at 5.9%, which is below the national average of 7.9%.

County employment will see the biggest rise in library jobs in 2021, as the proposal suggests adding additional library branches and will need new full-time positions. Public works is set to see the largest decrease, with a proposed 17 vacant positions being eliminated.

However, the county has faced its share of challenges because of the pandemic, and its travel, entertainment and restaurant industries are expected to continue struggling into next year.

"We're feeling the pinch and the impact and loss of sales tax revenues in those areas," said Deputy Mayor Darrin Casper. "Our restaurant taxes might be down as much as 25% this year. Our transient room taxes might be down overall 50% — and (they are) tracking down negatively right now at about 75%. Our general countywide sales taxes are tracking up about 2.1%, and that says something about our diversified economy."

Over the last several months, a boom in construction has helped offset some of the losses in sales tax.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson talks to members of the media about the county's budget for 2021 at the Salt Lake County Council Chambers in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

Another aspect of 2021's budget proposal is the restoration of monies that were cut in 2020 due to COVID-19.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney was impacted by these "contra-accounts" this year, and the proposal includes a request for $1.12 million in relief in 2021.

Certain county-owned buildings, such as the Eccles Theater, are closed or at limited capacity temporarily, drastically reducing or eliminating revenue all together. The county's 2021 budget includes transferring funds to help subsidize those buildings until they can reopen.

The county is also preparing to facilitate an "unprecedented" vaccination effort in 2021 and anticipates small quantities of a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in March. However, the economy could take much longer to fully reopen as a large number of vaccines will be needed for herd immunity.

"That's going to mean bodies and people and supplies and PPE (personal protective equipment), so we're preparing for that," Wilson said.

Federal funding, including money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, was also hard to accurately predict and could have an impact on taxes in 2021.

Other primary focuses of the new budget proposal include keeping the general fund balance at or above $65 million, focusing on county employees and preparing for a still uncertain future in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction crews work on the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

"There was nothing predictable about 2020," Wilson said. "So what the budget team did this year was actually different; we received quite a bit of money from the federal government to mitigate the COVID emergency, and we spent money in the community. But we are also reserving funding the best that we are able to legally through federal guidelines to prepare for next year's emergency."

Requests for funding from various agencies and offices were also included in the proposal.

  • The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office's top request was money to further compensate sworn and civilian jail employees. The proposal suggested $2.6 million.
  • The assessor asked for funding for in-grade advancements. The proposal suggested $104,000 in appropriations.
  • The clerk asked for money to help offset lost revenue, which would cost an estimated $770,000.
  • The county recorder requested funding to add an additional eight full-time employees, which would cost an estimated $566,000.

"This is obviously a success story," Casper said. "Their workload is up 44%, and their revenue over 2019 is up $3.3 million. And they're just doing a tremendous job."

The mayor's proposal for appropriations to offices of elected officials was exactly as they requested, with the largest request coming from the justice courts for a courtroom remodel.

Proposed new operations include the opening of Magna Park, Wheeler Farm, the White City Canal Trail, a Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center and two new library branches, one in Granite and the other in Daybreak.

Proposed appropriations totaled $1.3 billion.

"I would say six to eight months ago, I would have imagined we would be wrapping up COVID, and we would be well on our way to administering a vaccine," Wilson said. "This virus has been brutal."

"Six months ago, we did not know where we would be today as we look at next year's need for Salt Lake County. "(I'm) so happy to report ... we're actually preparing for the adventure of next year."

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