Fans of the TV Show Parks and Recreation may remember an episode in which it’s discovered that City Manager Ben Wyatt was once mayor of a city in Minnesota. Voted in at 18, he quickly ended up bankrupting the city by building a winter sports complex named Ice Town. He was subsequently removed from office after a scant two months and constantly asked about the failure whenever he’s in a high-profile situation. In a case of life imitating art, Cedar City is plotting a course all too similar to this fictitious television show by pledging a large pot of tax money to build an ice rink.
For much of this year, the non-profit group The Glacier has been in discussions with the Cedar City Council to make their temporary ice rink a permanent fixture. You won’t find many people who don’t like the idea but you’ll find plenty of people who don’t care for the proposed cost. Throughout the entire process this was being sold by proponents as a bold public-private partnership, one that would involve minimal costs to taxpayers. Over time, however, it’s become obvious that the cost to taxpayers, even with the greatly corrected numbers, is going to be far higher than originally stated and begs the question as to just how much of this venture will be funded with private money after all.
For background, the first proposal put before the city council was to have The Glacier construct a permanent ice rink at their current temporary location next to the aquatic center. That location was originally planned to be a two-story indoor gym, but the gym has not been built yet due to funding limitations. The Glacier had asked for the city to contribute up to $85,000 per year in utility costs over 20 years (a total of $1.7M) and they would find the money to build the facility.
After some digging, it was determined that the improvements put in place for the planned gym were worth north of $1M and it would be nearly twice that to relocate the gym to an adjacent site. The Glacier then came back with a counteroffer: the city chips in $2.85M towards the construction of a new facility on an empty lot across from the aquatic center and they would find another $2.85M in matching funds. The council voted 3-2 to approve the new proposal at the September 25 2019 meeting and start hammering out the details later.
But it looks like there’s not going to be much private money at all left when Dallin Staheli, the public representative for The Glacier, is done. Two days prior to the Cedar City Council’s vote in favor, Mr. Staheli presented to the Iron County Commission asking for their financial backing as well. There was no amount discussed at that meeting, but sources who know say the request will be for upwards of $1M. It’s also reportedly planned to come from the Cedar City Brian Head Tourism Bureau’s collected room taxes. However, that money is specifically earmarked to only be used for tourism promotion, not a capital improvement project such as this. To direct that tax money in that fashion would definitely be illegal.
The rent-seeking doesn’t stop there. Mr. Staheli is also planning to present to the Iron County School Board today (Tuesday, October 22, 2019) during their study session to ask for their financial backing as well. (I note with no small irony that many of the same proponents of this project have also been tearing the board to shreds over the high school mascot change at Cedar High School. A conspiratorial mind might wonder if their constant verbal assaults are prep work to get the board to make a peace offering.) There’s also well-placed sources hinting that Southern Utah University will be the next target for solicitation of funding. At the end of the day, this “public-private partnership” is looking to be very heavy on the public and increasingly light on the private.
So with nearly $3M from Cedar City and what’s looking to be approaching an equal amount from Iron County, Iron County School District, and SUU, where is the private part of this project? It seems to me that it’s an empty promise, a bill of goods sold to snooker a city council into parting with far more money than they otherwise would have on a recreational facility.
And what does the city get out of it? They have almost zero operational control (The Glacier maintains that), but the facility gets put in their name, an “asset” that starts depreciating on day one and becomes their problem entirely after 20 years toward what could be the end of its useful life. Citizens of Cedar City and Iron County should be outraged at the shell game going on. They should demand that their elected officials stop this proposal that has been put forth in bad faith from the very start. Anything else is financial malfeasance.