Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Though there are still many details to hash out — and some lingering concerns about how many new police officers will be hired — the Salt Lake City Council has signaled early support for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s proposed priorities for the city’s sales tax hike that will trigger this fall.
While wading through the various projects and programs the mayor has proposed for the sales tax hike’s first year, estimated to bring in about $25 million in new revenue, council members on Tuesday voted in a straw poll to endorse Biskupski’s plan to break down the revenue into four areas.
That includes 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. The rest would be held in reserves.
But exactly what transit and road projects and affordable programs that revenue will fund remain uncertain — and a question council members grappled with during Tuesday’s three-hour-long work session as they delved deeper into Biskupski’s proposals for transit, roads, police and affordable housing.
Tuesday’s informal vote comes after Councilmen Charlie Luke and James Rogers expressed frustrations with Biskupski’s proposal to fund 27 new police officers in the tax hike’s first year rather than all 50 the council funded with one-time money as a budget adjustment last year.
In a meeting last week, Luke and Rogers clashed with Biskupski briefly over the issue, accusing the mayor of only funding a portion of the police, while Biskupski reiterated she still intends to fund all 50 officers, it will just take two years to do so because of hiring challenges currently facing the police department.
"This is really frustrating for me," Rogers said in last week’s meeting. "We came out, we did something I thought was very ahead of the curve; we said 50 police officers … and all I’ve heard is, ‘We don’t need 50.’"
"No, we’re not saying — " Bisupski interjected, but Rogers cut her off.
"Let me finish," he said, his voice rising. "When we were at the table, the chief said, ‘We don’t need 50 to fill our beats, we need 27. … I’m sorry, this is not right. This isn’t monopoly money."
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Biskupski said she’s "always been committed" to hiring 50, but it will take two years, again referring to difficulties hiring due to lack of qualified candidates.
"So you can ask for 50 officers in 2018, and you can’t get them," she said.
Tuesday, the council discussed the police department’s budget with Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown. Luke questioned the chief on whether the 27 officers would be enough to fill neighborhood beats, and Brown said he believed the 27 would bring his force up to the roughly 200 he’d need.
During the meeting, neither Luke nor Rogers brought up their concerns with Biskupski’s proposal to fund only 27 for the tax hike’s first year and both voted in favor of the straw poll to endorse the funding breakdown. But in an interview after the meeting, Luke said he still has concerns.
"The problem we have now is for the past seven years I’ve been hearing the police department is understaffed," Luke said, but added that if Brown argues 27 will be enough, it is "politically tough to argue" the police department needs more.
"At this point, I hope that they’re right," Luke said. "We don’t really have a choice since they argued against the additional officers."
Luke said it’s "frustrating" because come next year, even though the tax hike will bring in even more revenue in its second year, he worries now’s the time to allocate the funds.
"Next year we’ll have more money, but we’re also going to have additional needs," he said. "Others are going to want to put it toward more housing, others are going to want to put more money into streets, so it’s going to be tough to come back and justify that when … this year we’re told ‘We don’t need it.’"
Brown said in an interview that as far as next year is concerned, the 27 new officers should be enough to fill the neighborhood beats — but he also cautioned that that may change depending on the results of a study currently underway by the International Associations of Chiefs.
Plus, Brown pointed out more than 30 officers are currently in training and haven’t yet hit the streets.
"I don’t think we know what we need right now," Brown said. "But I do know we need those 31 officers in the academy today."
Either way, Brown said he welcomes any additional police officers, but hiring challenges also complicate matters.
"I’ve never had a council say, or a mayor say, ‘Here’s 27 officers,’" let alone 50, Brown said. "We’re very grateful, we just have to see how the numbers play out."
Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, said the mayor’s office "appreciates" the council’s early support of the mayor’s proposed breakdown, crediting department officials for basing their requests off the city’s transit master plan and affordable housing plan. But he also acknowledged there’s still work to be done.
"We’re all doing this to achieve greater access to affordable housing, better roads, a safer community, and better access within the city using transit," he said. "We appreciate the council support, but we know it’s an ongoing conversation."
The specific projects and programs for the revenue will have to be sorted out over the next several weeks as the council continues its budget discussions.
Under state law, the council must adopt a balanced budget by June 22.