On Tuesday, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker outlined his proposed budget for the state’s largest city.
“This budget is, in many ways, a continuation of the focus I have had as a mayor over the past several years,” Becker told the media prior to making his formal presentation to the Salt Lake City Council.
Becker was quick to tie the city’s budget to air quality.
“From the city’s perspective…[clean air] is very much at the heart of this city’s financial success and prosperity. [Poor air quality] is a dark cloud hanging over our city,” added Becker, “it serves as an impediment to the quality of life in our city, the attractiveness of our city to businesses that want to move here. We are going to not realize our potential as a great American city.
It is for that reason that Becker has chosen to prioritize programs that protect and expand bike paths, reduce two-stroke engines (such as those in lawn mowers), increase the walkability of communities, incentivise green building construction, and push for expanding the Sugar House Streetcar line while also advancing plans for a downtown streetcar.
“There are no tax increases in this budget” Becker was quick to add, instead focusing on continuing to find efficiencies within the current budget.
One area where the city has made great strides has been in the area of healthcare. “For the first time, we are actually seeing a reduction in healthcare costs in the city as a result of some remarkable changes that started a few years ago.” Becker touted, noting that nearly 80 percent of all city employees have opted into the new health insurance plan that both reduces costs and increases coverage.
Becker also proposed the closure of Fire Station #9 in his budget. The station, which sits to the west of the airport, has been targeted by the mayor because the station only receives an average of two calls a day and is not in a residential area. Becker instead proposes that the services be absorbed by other stations, a move, Becker feels, will not have a noticeable impact on emergency response time.
One area of concern is that, though the city is seeing a high level of growth both of businesses and households, the city’s coffers have not increased at a similar rate. Though Becker acknowledges that the administration is aware of some of the reasons behind tax dollars not matching growth, it is not able to easily see where the money drain is coming from. To combat this, Becker intends to call upon the Utah State Auditor, John Dougall, to assist the city in this task.
“We want to find out why [the money doesn’t add up], whether it is through the structure of the state tax system, if it is through evaluation, whatever the causes may be, [we want to] find out what is going on.” Becker vowed, adding that he wants to ensure that the city is able to provide for its citizens and accommodate growth. Due to the complex nature of the task, however, Becker was unable to set a timeline for any answers, estimating that the task would take several months to a full year. That being said, Becker did promise to provide the auditor with as much information and city resources as possible.
“The amount of non-private property in Salt Lake City has a huge impact on us. Almost half of the property in Salt Lake City is not taxable, either [because it is] governmental or non-profit,” Becker responded when asked about the possibility that the expansion of the LDS Church property is having a negative effect on tax revenue.
Becker promised not to allow the city to enter into a deficit. “But [the overall issue] is something we need to know better.”
Becker then turned his attention to Salt Lake City employees, who, as Becker put it, bore the brunt of the city’s cost cutting measures during the Great Recession. Now that conditions have improved, the mayor is proposing a 3 percent increase in wages for Salt Lake City employees. “I view this as as a good business decision… and it is long overdue. They should join in the city’s prosperity,” Becker remarked.
The growth of the city and its tax base has been impressive, with Becker referring to it as “The Great Reversion,” wherein many citizens have chosen to leave the suburbs and return to the city center. “Part of our challenge and opportunity is to provide that great environment.”
“We are in a very prosperous time for Salt Lake City.”