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The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area, and the reporting focuses on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

St. George proposes $500 million-plus city budget, the largest to date

St. George City Hall, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 17, 2020
Lexi Peery
/
KUER
The city administrative building in St. George, Utah, Dec. 17, 2020.

St. George is working on its largest budget to date, about $503 million, which will mostly go to public safety and capital projects in the fast-growing city.

It’s a $78 million increase from the previous budget. The city’s general fund is getting a 12% or $11 million increase. Also for the first time in 35 years, the city is looking at a property tax increase.

“The numbers tell the story” of what St. George is focused on, said City Manager Adam Lenhard.

“It is a large budget, but I think that reflects very closely the fact that our community is growing,” he said. “We have a very large, dynamic, growing community. And as our community grows, I would expect that our budget will continue to grow.”

To keep up with the growth and have competitive wages for the long run, city leaders propose a property tax increase. It’s dedicated solely to public safety. Lenhard said they’ve tried making adjustments to wages for police officers, but they need to do something more significant.

“Our police and fire are completely overwhelmed, they're overworked,” he said. “I have serious concerns about that as city manager, I think our residents do too.”

At a public hearing last week for the budget, a former police officer Alan Olds said he retired from a different force “because [he] didn’t want to live in poverty because that’s what [the city] pays.”

“These guys that work here, your firemen, your policemen that live here, your ambulance guys, they all got two or three jobs. They can't afford the homes that are here,” he said.

The proposed budget also allocates around $40 million to public safety or 40% of the general fund. That’s an increase of about 28% from last year.

The city wants to add 26 public safety employees, plus their required vehicles and equipment at a cost of over $5 million. A new fire station in Desert Canyons, which is near the airport, will cost just over $6 million. The headquarters for the fire department also needs a nearly $3 million update.

Most residents voiced support for increasing funding for public safety at the hearing, especially as the city grows.

“I've gotten to know your police department leaders over the last two years and have been incredibly impressed [by] what they do on such a small budget,” said Colette Cox, who’s part of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce leadership team. “It's very encouraging to see that that budget is proposed to be increased.”

The city has budgeted $22 million for leisure services in the general fund, a 34% increase from last year. In addition, over $11 million is set aside for park capital projects, which comes from the city’s impact fees. That includes new parks, pickleball court expansion and trails.

Councilmember Michelle Tanner doesn’t support raising property taxes and said there are other places in the budget the city could look at cutting.

“I don't feel comfortable raising taxes when I feel like we haven't thoroughly combed through the budget to prioritize public safety versus, you know, we're up 34% in leisure services,” she said. “We could move some of those funds anyway into public safety versus raising taxes.”

Lenhard said it’s not that simple. The tax increase would help sustain the city’s police force for the future, while most of the money set aside for leisure services is for one-time projects.

Some residents agreed with Tanner and asked the council not to increase taxes. They raised concerns about government officials overstepping and the impacts of inflation.

Others spoke in favor of the proposed budget, and the need to maintain the trails and parks many people move to the region for.

“[City programs and services] contribute to a lifestyle and quality of life that is unparalleled,” said resident Ken Schoonover. “In the face of … growth, to consider reducing or defunding these programs that are so vital to what contributes to our quality of life, would be foolish.”

Capital projects totaling $170 million are also planned for the upcoming fiscal year. As Lenhard pointed out, nearly one out of every $3 in the budget is going toward building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure.

  • $36 million for a new City Hall and parking structure. This project has been talked about for several years, and was approved for last years’ budget. It’s been delayed because the city is still looking for a new site.
  • $6 million for a secondary water reservoir. This is at Graveyard Wash near Santa Clara.
  • $3 million for the regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is phase two of the project that expands the facility.
  • $16 million for the St. George Airport. This will go to the terminal apron expansion and improvements to the facility.

The council will hold another public hearing on the budget June 16. If they decide to go forward with a property tax increase, they’ll go through the state’s Truth in Taxation process before voting on it later this summer.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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