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SOUTH SALT LAKE — Some South Salt Lake residents want to put their mayor's and City Council's pay raises on this year's ballot after the council overturned a city law in order to pass its own raise.
"I would say the big thing is it's not necessarily about the raise, it was about the process that they did it, and the way they basically exhibited that they didn't see the need for any oversight. And they felt the ability, that they could do in raising their own salary, is at their own will," said Timothy Webb, one of the petitioners.
On March 23, the South Salt Lake City Council passed a resolution raising its own wages and removing a previous city rule that required a compensation commission to review raises. The commission included three mayor-appointed residents and one council-appointed resident. In the resolution, the council said that commission "has not produced information helpful to informing the City Council in regard to compensation questions."
The council members previously made $946 per month, or $11,352 per year. The raise approved last week increases their yearly salary to $17,431. The body also approved the pay increase to be retroactive to the start of 2022.
Meanwhile, as part of the same resolution, Mayor Cherie Wood's compensation increased from $6,791 per month to nearly $11,000, raising her salary to $136,224 per year. Last year, Wood made $81,644 in wages, making her the 58th highest-paid employee of the city.
By comparison, Sandy's mayor made $128,916 last year; the Taylorsville mayor made $93,366; and Murray's mayor made $136,452.
I would say the big thing is it's not necessarily about the raise, it was about the process that they did it, and the way they basically exhibited that they didn't see the need for any oversight. And they felt the ability, that they could do in raising their own salary, is at their own will.
Councilwoman Sharla Bynum said during that meeting they decided on retroactive payments after "talk of bonuses maybe, that there's been some salary theft possibly going on with not having raises for so long, and so this was a good compromise we felt to that problem."
During a March 9 meeting when the proposal was debated, Bynum emphasized the need for the measure after 11 years without raises.
"I saw the annual salary comparison for other cities, and it was honestly quite shocking," she said, calling the city "at the absolute bottom of this comparison."
"The last time that the City Council had any kind of increase, we had a (Regional Development Agency) stipend and the same thing with the mayor, and then that was removed," Bynum said.
Councilman Shane Siwik expressed concern, however, with the wage rising above City Council members in larger neighboring cities such as Murray and Taylorsville.
"That puts us just a little bit under Provo, which is probably four times our population," Siwik said.
But Bynum contended that although the city is small, "we have a lot going on."
"When we do things like this, we're doing things like this for future council members as well," she said, adding that she believes it will encourage more people to run for office.
Other council members said they work harder than the councils of other cities, and face unique challenges due to the city's proximity to Salt Lake City, the fact that it hosts a homeless resource center and plans to house more high-density growth.
But Siwik disagreed that the council works harder than those of other cities.
"I'm going to be honest, I think going from $11,352 to $17,431, when Murray is at $15,962, Taylorsville's at $14,887, Orem's at $14,705, and Provo's at $18,899, I think that's too high," Siwik said.
When the council ultimately voted to support the resolution later in March, no residents commented during the meeting's public comment portion.
Bynum emphasized that council members who "aren't comfortable" with the raise can work with the city's financial department to keep their pay the same. Siwik was the only council member who voted against the raises.
Residents want referendum
Jake Christensen, who ran against incumbent Wood for South Salt Lake mayor last year, turned in the referendum request Wednesday just ahead of the weeklong limit after a law passes. He is now waiting to hear whether it will get approved for a petition, which the city needs to decide within 20 days.
If the referendum does get approved and if he can gather enough signatures, the ordinance would be placed to voters on November's ballot. The petition would need to receive the signatures of at least 11.5% of the number of active voters in at least 75% of the metro township's or city's voter participation areas, according to Utah law. That is just under 2,200 signatures. If the petition is successful, the raises would be halted until residents vote.
Christensen said he's not against raises, but he disagrees with the process the decision underwent — especially in a city with a lower economic demographic — as the council dissolved the commission and then approved its raise soon after.
"I do want the public to weigh in, I want there to be discussion around what the proper amount should be and exactly what the city is able to do given what our citizens have and what they're working with," Christensen said.
When asked for his comment on the lack of public opinions shared during the City Council meeting, Christensen acknowledged that it's difficult to get the public involved in City Council meetings.
Christensen noted the ordinance was also passed on the same day the City Council approved a new $6 per month stormwater and utility fee for residents.
He noted that in 2021, South Salt Lake was named the city with the second-highest taxes in the state just under Salt Lake City, with $1,252 collected each year in taxes and fees per resident, according to the Utah Taxpayers Association.
He said it causes concern that city leadership "doesn't quite understand the gravity of what these types of fees and taxes can mean to some of our citizens."
Based on his time running for mayor and what he heard from residents, Christensen says he believes the petition would get enough signatures to fulfill the requirement and make it onto the ballot. Now he says he needs to get the word out.
Webb says buzz around South Salt Lake has already begun over the issue, especially because of the stormwater drain tax. He contends it sent the wrong message to residents.