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Business & Economy

SLCo Proposes Optimistic Budget For 2021 As Pandemic Uncertainty Lingers

A photo of downtown Salt Lake City.
Brian Albers / KUER
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson proposed a slight decrease to the 2021 budget, $1.3 billion compared to $1.4 billion the year before.

Despite a rocky year, Salt Lake County is projecting a budget surplus for 2021.

At a presentation Tuesday, Mayor Jenny Wilson called this year’s budget proposal unlike any other, to match a year just as strange. But she said the county was able to deal swiftly and efficiently with 2020’s many curveballs, which included five emergency declarations, an influx of new activity for some departments and a near-complete shut down for others.

Even with those challenges, she said the county’s proposed budget of $1.3 billion dollars — down from $1.4 billion last year — is well positioned to tackle all that 2021 might throw its way, like massive efforts for ongoing COVID-19 testing and contact tracing as well as preparations to distribute a vaccine when its expected to arrive by the end of March.

“We have proven our ability to be nimble over the past almost eight months and will become even more expert at it over the next year,” Wilson said.

The county was helped in part by a surprising, but slight increase in sales tax — up about 2.1% — and almost record revenue from county-owned golf courses, said Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper.

Perhaps most significant, however, was the $78 million in cuts the county made to its base budget back in June, much of which will continue into 2021. Casper said the majority of those reductions came from a freeze on new hires and not filling vacancies as county employees retired or left for other jobs.

And despite major losses in revenue from restaurant and hotel taxes — which took about a 25% and 50% hit, respectively — he said the county did not lay anyone off. It’s also giving most employees a 1.5% salary increase.

“Our fund balances are building up,” Casper said. “In other words, the cuts have exceeded the revenue losses. But we think that that's necessary because we don't know what's in store in terms of how long this public health emergency is going to last.”

Wilson said many changes are likely to come to the budget, including a year-end adjustment in December. The proposal will now head to the county council for approval by the end of the year

“While our revenue projections are solid and our fiscal house in order, we remain cautious — exceptionally cautious — especially with so much uncertainty,” she said.

Because the budget must be approved by Dec. 31, the mayoral election would not affect the 2021 proposal.

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