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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

AAA Bond Rating

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams praised his fiscal management team and the Salt Lake County Council after receiving notice that Fitch Ratings, a national ratings firm, has assigned new, higher financial ratings to Salt Lake County bonds, including its transportation tax revenue bonds and its sales tax revenue bonds. Salt Lake County is one of 41 counties nationally—among 3,140 overall—to earn this distinction.

“This confirms the county’s financial health and also sends a strong signal that we’re a good long-term investment. It speaks to our determination to be a government with a fiscally-responsible balance sheet and a careful eye on budgets,” said Mayor McAdams.

Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper says the county has been notified by Fitch Ratings that not only will it retain its triple-A rating on its general obligation bonds, but that several categories have been upgraded to either AA+ or AAA. Casper said that with such an excellent credit score, Salt Lake County will pay less interest and save taxpayer dollars when it enters the market with an upcoming issuance of general obligation bonds in the amount of $22 million as the second stage of parks, trails and open space expenditures. Salt Lake County voters approved a $47 million parks and trails bond measure during a 2012 election.

“Salt Lake County remains one of the top 41 counties nationwide for financial strength.  Sound, conservative fiscal policies have made this possible, along with prudent financial management by elected officials of both parties and our competent staff,” said County Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove.

“I’m proud of our fiscal management team. They serve the taxpayers well in how they manage governmental operations and the financial world clearly is taking notice,” said McAdams. “Once again, Salt Lake County is demonstrating what it means to be a thriving metropolitan area that focuses on efficient and responsive government.”

See the SL Trib article on this great news!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Salt Lake County Council passes the 2016 budget!

Over the past few weeks the Salt Lake County Council has been scrutinizing the budget. We approved $2.1 million in cuts and included funding for indigent defense, deferred maintenance, and criminal justice reform.

Tonight the council finalized and passed the budget for 2016. Our total budget is $1.1 billion. Much of those funds are pass-through dollars, so our general fund is around $304 million.

Salt Lake County is seeing an increase in jail bookings and we let 8000 criminals per year walk because of lack of space. Building and operating more jail beds is very expensive, so as a county we are looking for ways to reform criminal justice. Because there are so many criminal justice needs, the council considered extending a tax that was instituted for the jail bond 20 years ago. The bond is paid off at the end of this year and would free up $9.4 million.

If there was no tax extension, residents would get $18 back annually because of the jail bond. This extension means there is no tax increase, but residents won’t get a refund, either.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the Salt Lake County Council have been working on criminal justice reform through a bipartisan effort. We have been working together to make sure tax dollars are spent wisely and public safety needs are met.

These are my comments from the final budget meeting tonight:

"I came to our budget meeting a few weeks ago with a list of $4 million in proposed cuts to the budget. My goal was two-fold – first, to fund indigent defense and deferred maintenance in information technology. Second, my goal was to be able to move the sheriff and DA’s budgets out of this $9.4 million amount for criminal justice reform.

We were able to do some of these things, but not all. I know it’s not popular to continue a tax that some thought was promised to end. I don’t think 20 years ago anyone could’ve imagined that mental health issues would be so problematic, that the severity of crimes would be increasing at such an astonishing rate, and that we would have such a serious drug problem threatening our society.

Public safety is our number one responsibility. Last week I considered not voting to continue the tax, but as the days went on, my gut said otherwise. I believe it would be irresponsible to not spend the money necessary to find long-term solutions to this problem. How easy it would be to tell my conservative base that I will not raise taxes, and yet how completely sick I would feel to look away and pretend we don’t have the problems that we do while criminals roam free on our streets, and while we continue to have four-month long waiting lists for substance abuse treatment.

It is less expensive and more fiscally responsible to help people with substance abuse and mental health issues, than it is to lock them up. So I make my decision tonight based on the future – my children and your children’s future. If we continue to kick the can down the road, nothing will change, and our problems will only get worse and more expensive. I am asking the people of Salt Lake County to support us as we continue this tax – approximately $18 per year for the average homeowner – to reform our criminal justice system."

Last week Councilman DeBry and I spoke about our aversion to taking taxpayer dollars without a set purpose. We have heard from our constituents that they would like to see us make more cuts before keeping their hard-earned dollars for criminal justice reform. So tonight we proposed a half million dollars in additional cuts. We also extended the tax and allocated the $9.4 million for criminal justice reform to fund the following:

1.     A receiving center so we can assess and then refer mental health and substance abusers and get them into treatment to lighten the load of the jail.
2.     Mental health and substance abuse programs that coordinate with probation.
3.     Prioritize the opening of a Community Corrections Center in 2017.
4.     A data program that allows us to compare jail bookings with participation in behavioral health services to determine evidence-based results in reducing recidivism.

I am grateful for the many constituents who contacted my office to find out what was going on with this issue. I am also grateful for those who took my criminal justice survey. Over 80 percent said they would rather see money go for programs than more jail beds. Over 60 percent said they prefer we make cuts and extend the tax this year, rather than doing it next year or looking at more costly measures down the road.

Here is the Salt Lake Tribune article that gives more information about what happened.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Should the Salt Lake County Council extend the jail bond tax to pay for criminal justice reform?

This is one of the most important issues we have faced since I began my service on the council - criminal justice reform.

Our number one priority is public safety. Since the jail is the single largest drain on the budget, it is something I believe we need to closely scrutinize. We are seeing an increase in jail bookings and because we don't have room for everyone, we let 600 people per month walk. Operating more jail beds is very expensive, so as a county we are looking for ways to reform criminal justice. That may include having a receiving center with a magistrate who can quickly make decisions on where people need to be. It may include more detox beds so we aren't using precious jail space for those who just need an overnight detox. It may include opening another pod at Oxbow Jail. It may include more mental health and substance abuse programs to rehabilitate, so people don't keep cycling in and out of jail. It could also include building a community corrections center to help us do this.

Because there are so many needs in this arena, the council is looking at extending a tax that was instituted for the jail bond 20 years ago. The bond is paid off at the end of this year and would free up $9.4 million for criminal justice reform.

We have some real needs to address. I began by proposing $4 million in cuts to the Salt Lake County budget. (You can read about that here.) Avoiding wasteful spending is one of my priorities, and so is investing in the future so we can save tax dollars down the road. Criminal justice reform is something that is critical.

I want to hear from you! Please answer these two questions on my survey and let me know YOUR thoughts. You can also leave comments below.

Aimee's Criminal Justice Survey

(As a side note, some of my constituents received a post card in the mail about this issue, funded by an out-of-state special interest group. It has misinformation such as, "Salt Lake County wants to hike taxes yet again!" (We haven't raised taxes since I have been on the council, and I believe the last tax increase was in 2012.) The flyer says this would be the third tax increase this year, but doesn't specify who the other tax increases were from. They were not from Salt Lake County. It also says that the tax extension will increase taxes by $9.4 million per year. (It is an extension, not a new tax, so taxes will not increase by that amount.) Don't believe everything you read in the paper, or in the mailbox!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

2016 Budget Discussions

This year as the Salt Lake County budget season began, I was determined to do due diligence on what I believe is the most important role of a council member... looking at, understanding, and weighing in the budget before passing it. It's your money. I don't take my role lightly.

The mayor proposes a budget, and then it's the council's duty as the legislative branch, to scrutinize his proposal and make any cuts or adds. Then it is approved by the county council.

We have a big job. Our total budget is $1.1 billion. Much of those funds are pass-through dollars, so our general fund is around $304 million. It has been a lot of work going through a budget of that size in under a month. I initiated several three-hour budget workshops with our council fiscal staff. It was great to have some of the other council member's policy advisors join us. We need to look at a better process for next year so we aren't cramming all this info in such a short period of time.

There are a few principles I used as I made decisions on the budget. As I looked at programs and projects, I asked myself these things:

1. Is this the role of government?
2. Will the investment in this program/project save taxpayer dollars down the road?
3. Is this something SL County residents need and expect from county government?
4. Are there other priorities that take precedence?

Prior to our council meeting yesterday, I worked with Councilman Richard Snelgrove and we put together a list of 39 potential cuts. My list of cuts equaled $4 million. We are still working through the budget, but so far we've cut about $1.4 million. We've also made it clear to everyone that the council IS looking at the budget and scrutinizing spending. Our democrat colleague, Councilmember Jenny Wilson, also proposed some cuts. It was good to see the legislative process at work.

Our number one priority is public safety. Since the jail is the single largest drain on the budget, it is something I believe we need to closely scrutinize. We are seeing an increase in jail bookings and because we don't have room for everyone, we let 600 people per month leave. Operating more jail beds is very expensive, so as a county we are looking for ways to reform criminal justice. That may include having a receiving center with a magistrate who can quickly make decisions on where people need to be. It may include more detox beds so we aren't using precious jail space for those who just need an overnight detox. It may include opening another pod at Oxbow Jail. It may include more mental health and substance abuse programs to rehabilitate, so people don't keep cycling in and out of jail. It could also include building a community corrections center to help us do this.

Because there are so many needs in this arena, the council considered extending a tax that was instituted for the jail bond 20 years ago. The bond is paid off at the end of this year and would free up $9.4 million for criminal justice reform. Extending this tax would not increase the amount a resident will pay next year, but they would not receive an $18 decrease.

Another priority that I believe was not properly funded in the mayor's budget, is our county IT. We are still living in the early 90's at SL County when it comes to IT. It is something that affects every department. We are at risk currently and I would rather forgo some of the unnecessary projects so we can fund what we need. Adequate funding for indigent defense is another priority. 

Next Tuesday we dive back into the budget. We won't be rubber-stamping the mayor's budget, but will develop our own fiscal priorities as the policy-makers for Salt Lake County.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Want to Volunteer with Salt Lake County??

Photo taken by Tom Smart, Deseret News
Every year Salt Lake County Volunteer Services presents its annual report to the Salt Lake County Council. With Utah being the number one state in the nation for volunteering (nine years running), Salt Lake County relies heavily on volunteers for everything from cleaning up invasive species along the Jordan River to helping out with Meals on Wheels.
Salt Lake County offers residents 70 different programs and 100 boards and commissions on which to serve. You can find more information about how to serve on one of those boards here. On just those programs, boards, and commissions, over 23,800 people volunteered their time and talents. Those 23,800 people spent over 719,700 hours volunteering! That’s the equivalent of about 346 full time county employees and a savings of $16,625,539.

While these numbers are fantastic, the number of volunteers is slightly declining in Salt Lake County, following a nation-wide trend. The “baby-boomer” generation is moving from a position of assisting others to needing assistance. Because baby-boomers were such a key source of volunteers, we are in need of younger generations to step in and replace the aging generation. Volunteering offers the to learn a new skill, add additional meaning and purpose, perform a higher good, and expand personal horizons. To make a difference in our community visit the Salt Lake County Volunteer Services website at

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

ZAP focus: Taylorsville Bennion Heritage Center

Written by the Taylorsville Historic Preservation Committee

In February 2002, the City of Taylorsville purchased the remaining two and one half acres of the Jones Dairy Farm including the Jones family home, and the property became the Taylorsville Bennion Heritage Center (TBHC).  Located on historic 4800 South, the TBHC started out with a historic house museum in the Jones family home which was built in 1906. The museum has been decorated to reflect what a home might have looked like in the early nineteen hundreds.  This is a hand’s on museum; there are no roped off areas you cannot explore.

Over the years the TBHC has grown to include several out buildings.  Behind the museum is a three car garage filled with more historic artifacts.  Also on the property are a replica one-room school house, a replica blacksmith shop, a farm implement barn, an outhouse, and the old dairy store which is now available to be rented for gatherings such as birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, wedding receptions, family reunions, meetings, play rehearsals, piano recitals, and many other uses.
Since the beginning, the Taylorsville Bennion Heritage Center has been a community asset.  The Deseret News in February 2002 called it “the city’s historic treasure” and “a local historic landmark”.  The members of the Taylorsville Historic Preservation Committee, who operate this facility on behalf of the City of Taylorsville, believes in partnering with other standing city committees as well as other community resources for the benefit of all.  The Taylorsville community gardens are housed at the TBHC, and they run out of space every year because so many people would like to have a small plot of land to grow vegetables.

Several community members lease space from the city to house their farm animals in the barns at the TBHC.  They make these animals are available for viewing and petting by visitors.  In return the visitors get a small taste of what farm life was like in early Taylorsville including the sounds and smells.  The Taylorsville Arts Council uses the dairy store to rehearse their annual musical, and  many scouts have earned their eagle because of projects at the TBHC.

The museum houses artifacts from some of the earliest settlers of Taylorsville.  In the Carpenter shop are wood working tools which belonged to Archibald Frame, Sr. and Jr., and may well have been used to build the Jones family home and the Salt Lake Temple.  In the scout display is the sash showing the badges earned by the 2nd person in the Salt Lake Valley to receive his eagle.  Many of the tools in the blacksmith shop were belonged to William Deverall – owner of one of the first blacksmith shops in Taylorsville.  On display is a square grand piano built in about 1895 and originally owned by Adam S. Bennion, and a pump organ that was used in the first LDS Ward house in the Bennion area.   There are wedding dresses from some of our early settlers.

The Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) grants received by the TBHC have been a key element in our efforts to spread the word of us to the community.  Since 2009, these grants have paid for the bus service to bring elementary school classes to our facility on a field trip.  We have had from 1500 to 2000 students plus their teachers, aides, and parent volunteers visit our facility each year for the past 7 years.  We are pleased to be able to offer this program again this year.  Every year, we have some students who are so excited about their visit that they bring their parents back for a more in depth, hands-on experience.  Many of the same teachers bring their classes every year.  They even start scheduling their spring visits in September.  Because of the success of this program, we are able to expose many more residents of Taylorsville to our unique facility and hopefully ignite in them an interest in the history of their community.  This is an invaluable opportunity.

The ZAP grants also allow us to provide handouts to the teachers such as twenty questions, word search puzzles, and other activities that the students can do back in the classroom to reinforce what they learned on the field trip.  These teacher packets also include a bibliography of history and other related books that teachers can check out from the museum.  We also include written histories of Taylorsville such as the booklet, “History of the Jones Dairy House in Taylorsville, Utah”.
We are very appreciative of the support of our city’s elected officials, the members of our community, and the ZAP organization.  We could not function without this continued support.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Criminal Justice reform is needed

Ever since I took office in January of 2014, criminal justice reform has been at the forefront of nearly every conversation we have about the budget. Now the county is in a position to either build more pods to house more prisoners or can invest in alternatives to keep low-risk offenders from cycling in and out of jail. Nearly one-third of homeless people are booked into jail in a 12-month period and during that same period the average offender was booked on two new charges and spent an average of three months in jail. The jail has become housing for the homeless and that was never intended to be its use.

The homeless population isn’t the only issue that the jail faces. The mentally ill and those with substance abuse disorders are also a high priority. Data shows that the mentally ill spend twice as long in jail than the non-mentally ill inmate. This presents a huge problem that costs money, staffing, and time that is costly to taxpayers. The bottom line is that our jail is crowded. When the jail opened there was a capacity of 2,000 beds and since that time the population of Salt Lake County has grown by 230,000 people. The Sheriff estimates 7,761 individuals will be released from the jail due to overcrowding this year alone. 

In 1995 taxpayers agreed to pay for the new jail at $9.4 million per year for 20 years. This December the bond will be expired. Normally when a bond is expired that money is sent back to the taxpayer. Instead, this proposal asks taxpayers to continue paying that $9.4 million for the foreseeable future. There would not be an increase to a resident's tax bill, but they would not receive an $18 per year decrease.

In 2014, the Salt Lake County Jail saw a 17 percent increase in the number of new felony charge bookings. The same year, the District Attorney’s office experienced a 12 percent increase in criminal cases brought for screening by law enforcement. The Legal Defender’s Association is similarly seeing increased caseloads. County probation caseloads are too high to provide effective supervision and successful interventions. Nearly 30 percent of the homeless population was booked into jail in a 12-month period. The average offender was booked for two new charges and spent an average of three months in jail. The staggering impact of this “revolving door” at the jail costs the sheriff and jail staff time, money and does nothing to deal with the underlying cause. For those in jail, there are the costs to them personally, to their families and ultimately to the surrounding community. 

 A just-completed independent study by The Council of State Governments Justice Center found:

  • One out of three people on pretrial supervision and one out of two people on county probation do not fulfill the requirements of their supervision.
  • People with mental illnesses stay longer in jail and return more frequently than people without mental illnesses.
Collaboration is occurring between state leaders, the county council, county mayor, county sheriff, county district attorney, county Human Services Department, the Criminal Justice Advisory Council and others to reinvest criminal and social justice dollars more effectively. All are working together to achieve the following outcomes:
  • Reduce incarceration for low level offenders
  • Reduce recidivism by implementing programs proven to work
  • Promote substance abuse and mental health treatment as viable and widely available alternatives to incarceration.
  • Maintain a focus on public safety while looking for opportunities to strengthen prevention efforts.

If this tax extension passes, I would push for a working group made up of the council, sheriff, DA, mayor's office, behavioral health, criminal justice staff, and other stakeholders, to figure out priorities for these funds. I believe it would be irresponsible not to make some drastic changes now to criminal justice. The longer we wait, the bigger the problem becomes, the longer it takes to make changes, and the more expensive it becomes for taxpayers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Should government tell businesses what they can sell?

Yesterday during our Salt Lake County Council meeting we discussed a proposed ordinance that banned the sale of dogs, cats or rabbits, unless they are obtained from a shelter. This ordinance was proposed in order to keep "puppy mills" from gaining traction.

I support our "no-kill" animal shelter philosophy in Salt Lake County. I am extremely proud of our animal services division and the great work they do. I abhor puppy mills and I am in favor of humane treatment of our animals.

I was the lone "No" vote on this ordinance, however.

The Deseret News article reads:
The County Council passed the ordinance 6-1, with Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton casting the lone dissenting vote.
"I'm not a big fan of government imposing undue regulations on businesses, especially when it's a regulation for regulation sake," Newton said. "We aren't having an issue with this currently in unincorporated Salt Lake County, so I'm having a hard time wrapping my arms around passing an ordinance when we really don't know who it might affect in the future."

According to the ordinance sponsor, we currently do not have any pet stores that are having a problem with this. So now government is imposing a law, that is really not needed. At least not right now. Maybe not ever.

I don't believe government should add unnecessary regulations to businesses. Government definitely has a legitimate role to play in growing the economy. We should create a level playing field for businesses and enforce contracts. But this ordinance gave me heartburn, not because I don't love doggies and kitties, but because we are actually telling a business where they have to obtain animals that they are selling.

What if a shelter doesn't have a certain kind of dog available and a store owner has customers who wants to buy? What if my neighbor's dog had puppies that they want to give to a pet store to sell? Now we are telling people what they can and can't do. We are increasing the burden on shelters (funded by taxpayers) because people will have to give their pets to an animal shelter instead of allowing a pet store to sell their animals.

This is unnecessary. Government should not be passing "message laws" that only place more burden on private enterprise. Especially when the problem trying to be solved (puppy mills) is not even a problem in Salt Lake County. I do support educating the public on this issue through a resolution. It is good to encourage animal adoptions through a rescue organization or shelter.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Community Preservation vote is around the corner!

Photo taken by Laura Seitz, Deseret News
After decades of annexations, which created declining tax base and uncertainty in using taxpayer dollars for infrastructure and economic development, Salt Lake County officials went to the Legislature last year to create a new form of government – metro townships. Senate Bill 199 also allowed for an election this fall so residents could determine for themselves the kind of government they want in their area.

Ballots will be mailed at the beginning of October and five townships (Magna, Kearns, Millcreek, White City, and Emigration Canyon) will decide if they want to become a city or a metro township. Copperton will decide to be a town or a metro township. Other unincorporated “islands” will decide if they want to stay unincorporated or annex to an adjacent city. 

We all understand what a city is – there are many cities in Salt Lake County with different forms of government. The main difference between a city and a metro township is that a city can charge franchise taxes and property taxes, if elected leaders so choose. Both forms of government will have five elected officials to represent the residents of that community. They both could continue to share sales tax revenue with other townships, cities, unincorporated islands, and parcels of land such as the canyons and Kennecott. (Kennecott will not be in the municipal services district, but the county council intends to forward those sales tax funds to the municipal service district.) With a city, the newly elected officials will have six months to opt out of sharing revenues and services with the municipal services district. With a metro township, they would continue to share revenues/services if voters vote “Yes” on the second ballot question to stay in the municipal services district. If a city or metro township is not in the municipal services district, they would need to self-provide or contract for their own services.

The municipal services district (MSD) is a local service district. It would be governed similar to Unified Police Department, Unified Fire Authority or Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District.
Those who choose to stay in the MSD will share sales tax revenue and pay for public works, animal control, and the other municipal services currently provided by Salt Lake County. Doing it this way allows elected representatives from each of the townships, cities and unincorporated areas to sit on the board and make the budgetary and servicing decisions.

Some have asked what the impact to taxpayers would be. If a newly created city or metro township opts to stay in the MSD, tax decisions will be made by MSD board comprised by representatives from member communities. If they do not participate in the MSD, then the newly elected leaders would make taxing decisions. Either way, the decisions of these elected representatives could result in changes to your taxes. The future will be in the hands of elected officials in your individual communities, which is why it’s important for residents to be involved in this ballot initiative AND future elections of council members, who will represent them directly.

All residents would still receive the same services for police, fire and sanitation, except for those in the “islands” that choose to annex to a neighboring city.

For years our unincorporated areas have been chipped away through annexations when neighboring cities have cherry picked revenue-producing areas. This has created a lot of instability as sales tax revenues are also taken away when commercial areas are annexed. It has made county leaders hesitant to put taxpayer dollars in a community’s infrastructure or economic development for fear that a neighboring city may take it away. SB 199 or “Community Preservation” is all about giving residents local representation and self-determination so communities can re-invest and continue to be a great place to live.  For more information, see