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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.