Social workers. Affordable housing. How Salt Lake City's mayor wants to spend tax dollars

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, is
pictured during a press conference at the City-County Building on
Wednesday, April 7, 2021.

(Steve Griffin, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah turns a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, now the fastest growing state in the nation, the capital city faces a "new frontier, a historic and critical" turning point, with the chance to invest millions into needs including racial equity, affordable housing and homelessness.

That's what Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday night as she unveiled her second budget proposal, which includes nearly $350 million in general fund revenue for the city's 2021-2022 fiscal year. In total, including the airport and other enterprise and capital improvement funds, Mendenhall's recommended budget expenditures exceed $1.7 billion, an increase of $512.4 million from last year, or a 28.6% increase.

"The fact is, we face a truly unprecedented opportunity, one born of historic challenges and fiscal responsibility," Mendenhall said in her speech. "But we have the chance to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our city and its people. This budget begins the work of seizing this moment for our future."

Mendenhall's recommended budget — which the City Council will weigh and possibly make changes to before adopting a final budget before July — doesn't raise taxes, though it does propose a new $50 million bond for capital projects at no additional cost to residents.

Because city leaders were "conservative and judicious" last year, "we will not be making any staffing or service cuts," the mayor said, "despite the serious budgetary implications brought on by all that 2020 entailed."

"In addition to our own pragmatic and responsible governance, we're here because our economy has remained strong and has even grown in the past year," Mendenhall said.

Highlights

Mendenhall's budget proposal includes new infusions of money for initiatives related to racial equity in policing, affordable housing and homelessness, and a $50 million Community Reinvestment Sales Tax Bond to bring in $50 million for new capital projects.

To fund several recommendations from the city's new Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, Mendenhall has proposed:

  • $450,000 to hire six more social workers for the city's Community Connection Center. Currently, the city doesn't have enough social workers to act as first responders, rather than police officers, to mental health emergencies. "This change will get us closer to ensuring there is always a social worker on shift to respond to emergency calls," Mendenhall said.
  • $200,000 for more equity, inclusion and diversity training for police officers.
  • $20,000 for a Peer Court program, which is meant to offer alternative ways for youth to be held accountable outside of the criminal justice system.

For affordable housing and homelessness, the mayor has proposed:

  • $11 million for affordable housing funding, including over $4.7 million for city Redevelopment Agency projects that, combined with existing funds, will allow the city to build or preserve about 350 units, with at least 116 of those rented at rates affordable to residents making 50% or less of the city's area median income, Mendenhall said. It would also include over $4.4 million in federal funding for other housing programs.
  • Almost $1 million for the city's Community Commitment Program, a program that focuses on outreach for individuals living on Salt Lake City streets.

Mendenhall is also proposing Salt Lake City use its bonding capacity for a new $50 million Community Reinvestment Sales Tax Bond. She said this year, the city has a "unique opportunity" to use bonding capacity for "important and exciting capital projects in every part of our city that can be accomplished without raising taxes on homeowners."

The mayor said that money would be used to fund capital projects "that have long been requested by residents and have been waiting in our stacks of detailed master plans for the right opportunity."

They include:

  • $10 million to convert the city's dilapidated former water park at 1200 W. 1700 South into a "premier regional park." The mayor said the city's west-side neighborhoods are past due for a "park of the caliber of Liberty or Sugar House park."
  • Funds could be used to shore up historic buildings in the city so they can be reutilized, such as the buildings at Allen Park, Warm Springs Park and the Fisher Mansion in Poplar Grove.
  • Funds to quiet train horns on Salt Lake City's west side by building infrastructure improvements to create quiet zones and safe train crossings.
  • Funds to implement the next phase of the city's Foothills Trails System Plan, funds for the Complete Street transformation of 600 North, improvements to the Jordan River or other west-side neighborhood park improvements.

"To think that we can provide all this value that residents have been asking for for years but without them paying a single extra cent is remarkable and a huge opportunity," Mendenhall said.

Revenue

Salt Lake City revenues across all funds for the 2022 fiscal year are over $1.3 billion, according to the mayor's budget. That represents an increase of 9.4% over fiscal year 2021 budgeted revenues. Budget officials attributed that increase to additional revenue from public utility increases, as well as a portion of anticipated revenue from the federal government's American Rescue Plan. The Salt Lake City International Airport, at $260 million, and public utilities, at $421.2 million, are the largest contributors to city revenues.

The city's general fund, with a budget of $349.7 million including rainy-day funds, increased by 3.75%, which budget officials attributed to sales tax and revenue from the American Rescue Plan.

Salt Lake City is slated to receive about $87 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. Mendenhall called that funding a "tremendous opportunity that we will invest equitably in our communities." City officials are still working through the details of how to spend the money, but Mendenhall said her team's plan "will not only take care of our city's fiscal health and the well-being of our city family. It will help spark the post-pandemic renaissance through pathways to employment, invigoration of business and cultural districts, neighborhood revitalization and more."

More details of how Mendenhall will propose to spend that money are expected in the coming month.

"I can't wait to share more with you about it on June 1," she said.

Also not included in Mendenhall's budget proposal was any funding for her proposed tiny home village to house the city's homeless in partnership with The Other Side Academy, which pledged $50,000 to begin building it for an initial opening before this winter.

When she announced the project last week, Mendenhall said the location and total cost of the project are details that still need to be ironed out, though she did say the city could possibly fund it using some of the $87 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

The City Council can always tweak the budget after it is adopted with budget amendments.

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Katie McKellar

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