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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Tentative budget draws in community

May 16, 2018 10:57AM ● By Cassie Goff

Many residents are in favor of raising taxes to keep the current city standard. (Van Tran/Cottonwood Heights)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

The Cottonwood Heights City Council may be forced to make some cuts to their budget for fiscal year 2018–2019. Some of the recommended cuts would involve losing staff members, including police officers, police support staff, firefighters and administrative services personnel. Additionally, the council has discussed eliminating funding for the arts council, city events, business association and newsletter.

The need for such drastic change within the budget comes from decreasing revenue and increasing fees. The four main revenue sources for the city are property tax, sales tax, municipal energy tax and business licenses/permits. Next year, two of the four sources are estimated to decrease. The only significant increase in revenue will come from sales tax, estimated to increase about 5.67 percent. Property tax is estimated to increase as well, but only by 1.3 percent.

“It’s not a tremendous growth like we usually see,” City Manager John Park said.

One of the city’s expenditures is expected to significantly increase. Cottonwood Heights contracts with the Unified Fire Authority (UFA) for public safety services. Last year, UFA experienced significant restructuring, which included reevaluation of the fee schedule for their members. Of which, the cost to the city will be an additional $205,356 from the previous year. An additional $68,000 will be taken from the city to accommodate new legislative bills that were passed over the previous session.  

“The council directed city staff to balance the budget without putting reserves in, while keeping $850,000 for roads,” said Park.

On May 8, Park presented the tentative budget with a number of cuts to be considered. He emphasized the word “tentative.” “This is a work in progress. Appropriate changes will be made prior to adoption of the final budget,” he said. 

The first cut discussed would come out of the public safety portion of the city’s budget. Police Chief Robby Russo was asked to cut $500,000 from the Cottonwood Heights Police Department’s (CHPD) budget. He worked with Finance Director Van Tran to calculate what a body in uniform costs, which came out to be around $100,000. He recommended taking $50,000 from ops, and cutting one support staff member in addition to four officers.

Another potential public safety cut discussed would come from the fire department. Fire crews at Station 110 on Fort Union Boulevard and Station 116 on Wasatch Boulevard would be brought down from four-person crews to three-person crews. 

The public works portion of the budget was also considered for a cut. Park recommended suspending a contract with Gilson Engineering, which costs $285,000 per year. “I think we can do that with support staff. Matt (Shipp, public works director) has been a city engineer before and has the ability to do that,” Park said. 

Administrative services, which falls under the general government portion of the budget, would also be cut significantly. The public relations specialist, events coordinator, arts production manager and assistant city manager positions would be eliminated, while other city staff members would not receive a cost-of-living adjustment.

Additionally, funding would be eliminated for the city newsletter, website, arts council, business association and events.

“That’s all the damage we could do,” Park said. “It may come down to layoffs.”

Public reaction

After listening to Park’s presentation, 28 people spoke during the public comment session of the city council meeting. Many others listened to the comments for two hours, requiring overflow seating in the council chambers. 

Various comments were heard: many urging the council not to cut police, fire, events, arts, or the newsletter; some in support of making the proposed cuts; some concerned about employees losing jobs; some supporting a raise in taxes.

“There is a budget crisis facing the city. We have a bloated police department which surpasses the needs of the citizenry. It’s time to make some cuts and to champion the leadership values,” said business owner Ed Schwartz.

CHPD officer Kevin Salmon spoke on behalf of the police. “The proposed number of five police would greatly impede safety services to efficiently respond to calls of service in the city. Cottonwood Heights has a favorable reputation in the organization. We recruit the best officers. I worry about officers losing faith and trust in the city. With hiring shortfalls, the staffing problem would only be compounded. We wouldn’t be able to recruit the quality officers we expect. Residents have enjoyed a Mayberry-type feel as officers engage on a personal level with the residents. Without those opportunities, the approachability of citizens is broken down. Don’t make a decision in haste. Involve the department; please listen to the employees and residents to make an informed decision.”

President of the local firefighters union Cliff Burningham said, “My obligation is to represent the firefighters that work here. A firefighter’s duty is to serve the community: that entails the most basic protection of the public through emergency lifesaving and property saving. Their concern is the decrease of crew size from four to three. It does have a significant decrease in efficiency of how we operate. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirement is two in and two out, if there is a known victim inside a structure. The chief would be forced to make the decision to wait until other people from another rig showed up.”

Youth City Council Member Kathryn Cunningham spoke against cutting city events. “Events are what bring people together. Butlerville Days, I personally feel, it brings people together. I urge you to make a different choice.” 

“Ann (Eatchel, events coordinator) is impeccable. She runs a program that is like none other,” said resident Chuck Koehn.

“Don’t fire Bryce (Haderlie, assistant city manager). He is capable and loyal,” said resident Tim Hallbeck. 

Arts Council Chair Becky Henriksen and members Katy Mitarai and Emily Smith came prepared with pamphlets. “I believe that arts are the heart and soul of our community. The paid employee, Kimberly Pedersen, has helped secure many grants of thousands of dollars. She is our liaison. We have hardworking people that have day jobs that cannot take over the job she is doing. Our program would wither away. Don’t take away our ability to make Cottonwood Heights a better place to live,” Henriksen said.

 “There is far more support to keep Cottonwood Heights what it is and tax us a little more, so what?” said resident Randy Whitehead.

Six additional residents supported a raise in taxes, including business owner and resident Carl Churchill. “We have the best police department. Safety and security of my family, friends and customers is paramount to me. If you have to delay road repairs, let’s do that. Let’s tax if we have to do that. Don’t make short-term cuts to degrade long-term quality of life within the city.” 

However, four residents were not in favor of raising taxes and spoke against it. “Spending has to be slowed down. I’m a big supporter of law enforcement, but our law enforcement in bloated. The city has to live within its means. Revenue is not going to increase. I would like to challenge this administration to put the brakes on before you raise taxes,” said resident Dan Jacobsen.

City council reaction 

“We recognize that everybody has their thing: police, fire, public works, arts council. We value every one of those people who think their thing is the most important thing. You have to appreciate that. You would hate to have them think that their thing wasn’t the most important,” said Councilmember Mike Shelton.

“Keeping fire whole would equate to 7 percent on the property tax,” said Councilmember Scott Bracken, “or about half a million dollars to keep them at their current level. Let me know if those are acceptable numbers.”

“Given the path we are on, without changing the trajectory of that path, we will raise taxes again and again,” Shelton said. “For me, an important principle when it comes to raising taxes is to evaluate people’s ability to pay those tax increases. You create an unsustainable situation where you demand more from citizenry to feed the government.” 

“We have incredible appreciation for those who work for the city in any capacity,” he continued. “Our police are second to none. It’s a difficult environment and they do the best job. The firefighters don’t work directly for the city, but they are an important part of our community. We value that greatly.”

“We are grateful for the people that work in the city and (we) hate that some of those people go home tonight with worries about where they will work. I hope none of them will feel any less of our appreciation as we look hard at the difficult task that has been done. Every one of those people and what they do is precious to us,” Shelton said, with Bracken echoing his comments. 

“We have asked staff to come back with detailed implications of all these items. We will evaluate every one of the cuts and make adjustments. I see some things that will change based on all the input,” said Mayor Mike Peterson.

The city council will be discussing the budget in upcoming meetings. Check the weekly agendas on the city website for more information. 

The public hearing for the final budget will take place on June 12. The final budget must be adopted on, or before, June 19. Since that is Tuesday, it will probably be adopted during a business meeting that night at 7 p.m.