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COVID-19 has huge impact on Salt Lake County’s proposed 2021 budget

(Salt Lake County Complex. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – The Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office released its proposed budget for 2021, and it includes a massive impact from COVID-19. Officials say a lot of county offices will have to make due with what they have now.

When the pandemic reached Utah, every department in Salt Lake County made huge cuts. Officials say the Community Services Department took the biggest hit, which covers recreation centers and arts and culture organizations. Some of those facilities are operating on “a shoestring budget,” according to financial analysts.

Rec centers impacted

You can see that when you walk into the Taylorsville Recreation Center. The county delayed many of the youth sports leagues until further notice, and moved gym equipment to ensure social distancing. Some people who use that gym say the staff maintains it nicely, but few people use it. 

One man told KSL, “There’s only like three or four people there when I work out.”

According to county leaders, the Community Services Department is down another $1.6 million this year.  Some of their main revenue generating venues, like the Eccles Theater, remain essentially closed; Broadway shows won’t return until next September.

COVID-19 and the 2021 budget

Out of the $33 million cut from county operations, only $6.4 million was restored for 2021. Overall, the 2021 budget has $26.5 million less than what was forecast for 2020.

(Screen grab of the county’s unassigned fund balance during the online county meeting.)

“Our decision to make cuts across the county [in March through June] allowed us to protect critical services and set us up for a quick restart.  Many of the cuts remain in this proposed budget,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said. 

Fortunately, there were a lot of vacant positions in county government, so officials didn’t have to make large rounds of layoffs like other counties had to.  County Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper said the vast majority of those unfilled positions are going to stay that way.

“The mayor ordered that we institute a hiring freeze. So only the most critical positions that were needed were allowed to go through the hiring freeze,” Casper said.

Fiscally conservative for the foreseeable future

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty about county funding for next year, so Casper says they have no choice but to put themselves in a fiscally conservative stance. A large amount of federal funding won’t be around for 2021.

“This emergency is going to continue, yet the CARES Act funds expire on the 30th of December, this year,” Casper said.

Plus, they have a massive vaccination plan they have to prepare for when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, and Casper says they don’t know how expensive that will be.

Despite the budget cuts and uncertainty, Casper says there are reasons to be optimistic.  He says general sales tax revenue is up over two percent, even though restaurant tax revenues were down by 25 percent and transient room taxes dropped between 50 and 75 percent.  Also, Casper says there was enough money to open the Granite and Daybreak libraries and they’re hiring employees for those facilities.