Council votes to enact $25M sales tax hike to ‘change life’ in Salt Lake City

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SALT LAKE CITY — The day after Mayor Jackie Biskupski unveiled her proposal on how to spend roughly $25 million that a half-penny sales tax hike would generate, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously voted to activate the increase.

That means those who shop in Salt Lake City will pay an estimated 5 cents more for every $10 spent (minus food and big-ticket purchases like vehicles) when the tax starts being collected later this fall.x

But the vote didn’t come without drama.

In several hours of discussion prior, council members grappled with exactly what priorities the revenue would be spent on. They eventually decided to move forward with the intent to sort out the details later, over the next six weeks as the council delves into the budget.

Their starting point will be Biskupski’s proposed plan to break down the revenue into four areas: about $7.1 million for streets and infrastructure; nearly $6 million for public safety, including $2.2 million for 27 police officers; nearly $5.3 million for transit projects; and more than $4.1 million for affordable housing initiatives.

"This is a plan for growth that will change life in Salt Lake City," said Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall. "It will change the way we experience Salt Lake City."

"We don’t take this lightly," said Mendenhall, adding that it takes "courage" to enact the tax granted to the city by the Utah Legislature in 2015 in the bill to relocate the Utah State Prison to Utah’s capital.

But Councilman Charlie Luke, who later voted in favor of the tax hike, expressed concerns that the city was moving forward with the increase with no solidified priorities for the money, specifically how much will be set in stone for streets and police.

"There’s been no disputing the fact that we need this additional revenue," Luke said, whether it be for streets, public safety, housing or transit. "But I’ve been concerned about the ability for this money to be utilized in ways that we have not talked about publicly, the way that it’s not intended to be used."

Luke said he was "concerned" when he saw in the mayor’s budget proposal Monday that only 27 officers had been funded in the tax hike’s first year, rather than the full 50, calling it "wrong and misleading" to "drop that number the day before we take this vote."

David Litvack, Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, told Luke the mayor’s administration still intends to eventually hire the 50 police officers in future years, but that will need to be done in phases since the police department is already struggling to hire enough officers to fill currently vacant positions.

In its first partial year, the sales tax hike will generate $25 million, but in subsequent years it will generate about $33 million annually.

But Luke worried any extra revenue in the future will quickly be eaten up by other priorities, and so the city should plan ahead. "You can’t hire if you don’t have the money," he said.

This is a plan for growth that will change life in Salt Lake City. It will change the way we experience Salt Lake City.

–Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall

Luke also said he worried "exciting" new projects like transit might overtake "boring" needs such as streets and infrastructure that have gone underfunded for decades.

"I have never doubted that we need the revenue. What I am concerned about is the lack of specificity," Luke said, though he added before he cast his vote that he’s "confident in us as a council that we will be true to our word."

"With my vote, I look forward to that future conversation," Luke said.

Prior to the vote, Liberty Wells residents Liza Springmeyer and her husband, Brad Leigh, spoke in favor of the tax hike but said they were disappointed to see the mayor’s budget proposal only funded 27 officers.

Leigh told of how recently he recently tried calling 911 for help with a drunken man who was bleeding from his nose and mouth, but was told by the dispatcher there were no officers available to send because they were all busy with a drive-by shooting.

"That is just totally unacceptable," Leigh said. "So I hope that you all can come to an agreement and get some more officers."

However, one city resident, Cristobal Villegas, applauded the drop to 27 officers, arguing more police on the streets won’t help minority groups feel safer.

"Adding police is too simple of a solution," Villegas said.

The City Council has until mid-June to pass a balanced budget. Now, with about $25 million more added to the 2019 fiscal year — bringing the city’s budget from about $275 million to about $300 million — the city council has the next six weeks to sort through what exactly how the money will be spent.

And the "ask isn’t over," Mendenhall said, noting that the other piece of the plan, an $87 million bond to fund capital improvement projects, will be in the hands of voters in November.

"It’s not done," Mendenhall said. "This is really just a foot in the door for the deeper conversations we’re about to have on the sales tax revenue and the budget."

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