SB216 Cheats Unincorporated Salt Lake County

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams

I could tell you that cheaters never prosper, but if you know anything about how legislation is passed, you know that’s a steaming pile of manure.

With only fifteen days left in the Utah legislative session, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is making a last minute push to pass legislation, introduced only last week (SB216, introduced by Democratic Senator Karen Mayne), that will lock unincorporated Salt Lake County from any further incorporations.

Because the legislation is retroactive to January 1, 2014, locking out incorporations taken before the legislation passes, it feels a lot like cheating, and in politics its often the cheaters who prosper.

If your neighborhood wants to join or become a city–well–tough rocks: it’ll be out of your hands.

For McAdams it’s just politics, but for Millcreek, where for nearly five years the push to form a new city has been growing and gaining momentum and where last week  residents filed a petition to put incorporation on the ballot, and the rest of unincorporated Salt Lake County,  it’s about the future of their families, homes and property and who gets a say in taxes, services, and governance.

Super Municipality of Unincorporated Salt Lake County
Super Municipality of Unincorporated Salt Lake County

The plan, which McAdams repeatedly has described as just a “barebones framework,” is 2350 lines of legislation, a complicated mass that belies McAdams’ claims of simplicity, and the more he claims it is the less credible he seems.

The bill lets McAdams incorporate a non-contiguous city that lumps together Millcreek,  Magna, Kearns, Copperton, Emigration Canyon, and some other small areas in the valley.  The legislation will change existing law requiring cities to be contiguous and begins a process to incorporate all unincorporated county as a noncontiguous municipality.

Further, it would retroactively lock the borders of unincorporated Salt Lake County and create another layer of government, a “super municipality” for which he would be mayor. McAdams would appoint a commission or committee to over the next eighteen months propose how that municipality would look. Then, in November of 2015, residents would vote up or down about whether they liked the proposal.

Specifics of the plan:

  • The county mayor will be the mayor of the super municipality.
  • A nine-member the super municipality council will represent nine districts of equal population. The districts will be established by the Salt Lake County council.
  • We will be represented in the the super municipality by one council member, whom we will elect from our district, and by a mayor who is elected by all voters in Salt Lake County.  The mayor can veto any action of the the super municipality council, which veto can be overridden only by a 2/3 vote.
  • The the super municipality will have one budget to provide municipal services to the whole city.  All of our municipal taxes and the sales taxes generated in our area will go into that budget.  The the super municipality council will decide all issues of zoning, public improvements and facilities, police and fire protection, emergency medical services, maintenance of streets, etc.
  • The mayor of the super municipality will hire a Chief Administrative Officer, a city attorney, a budget officer, and such other deputies and administrative assistants to the mayor as he deems appropriate, and all the super municipality employees will answer to him.  The the super municipality taxes will pay for them and their assistants.
  • Salt Lake County will provide administrative and municipal services to the super municipality, either directly or by contract with others, and the super municipality will reimburse the County for all such services.

In other words, McAdams will hold a lot of control over how the conversation will go moving forward, and resident of unincorporated Salt Lake County will be limited to participation as his discretion through until almost the end of 2015.

Not unrelated, Millcreek filed more than 5,000 signatures of property owners and voters who want to see the township become a municipality. After talking about the proposal for months, McAdams waited until the Utah Legislative session was half way over to propose the plan to stifle  Millcreek residents’ efforts to form a city, leaving citizens little time to evaluate and weigh in with their legislators on the proposal.  At a hastily called town meeting to announce the legislation (the call about the meeting went out at 7 AM MST), McAdams refused to answer questions about the sudden need or why he would not wait until next year to introduce the legislation.

What’s wrong with McAdams’ proposal?

  • McAdam’s Inherent Conflict of Interest: Already elected mayor of Salt Lake County, McAdams has a conflict of interest in forming a new “super municipality” by sitting as Mayor of both Salt Lake County and a city within Salt Lake County’s boundaries. As long as  McAdams is the mayor of any area other than the County his credibility and bias will always be questionable. How can anyone in unincorporated county know that he is serving Millcreek or White City or Magna?Both Salt Lake County and areas seeking to incorporate would be best served if different people filled representative positions. The County Mayor should not “serve two masters – the incorporated cities as a group and the new unincorporated city.”
  • A New Layer of Government: this new super municipality would create another layer of government, a city that is controlled by the county, staffed by the county mayor, and governed by a council of nine members with eight  of them concerned about other districts in the new municipality.  Why should they have any say over your area? Isn’t that what the state legislature is for?
  • Lack of Connected Interests: the new super municipality would be a non-contiguous city with such disparate interests, needs, and goals that the focus on our municipal services needs would be diluted due to competing interests of other areas of the county and resulting in disagreements among council members.
  • Unfair Burden: Right now, the largest contributor of tax revenues to Salt Lake County is Kennecott, followed by Millcreek. While there are varying charts and analyses arguing to what extent the various parts of unincorporated county support each other, but the reality is that without Millcreek other parts of unincorporated county will need to address their future as part of the cities around them or through other revenue sources.  The new super municipality would continue to take tax revenues from one area to support other far flung areas of the county.  More affluent areas  would be the only ones making those contributions—the rest of the communities in the county–those in cities– are off the hook because they were wise enough to incorporate into their own cities. In short, the proposal seems to to institutionalize the financial support of Magna, Kearns, Copperton, Emigration Canyon, etc., by the residents of East Millcreek, Millcreek, Canyon Rim, and Olympus Cove.
  • Watered Down Representation: The new super municipality would have a mayor with broad executive powers whom we would elect only indirectly along with all the other county residents.  We would get a remote government that is not accountable to us except for the election every four years of one of nine council members;
  • Loss of Self-Determination: Although McAdams sells his bill as a means of increasing representation for each community, the reality is that each community will be required to give up some ability to determine its own future to the body that McAdams’ appointed committee creates out of the entire unincorporated county. Enough representatives from Millcreek, Kearns, and White City could always dictate policy in Copperton. Not a single one of the communities, none of which are contiguous or connected geographically to the others, would be able to completely control their own destiny.

Smoke and Mirrors and Slight of Hand

In addition to the problems with the proposal, McAdams has pitched it with some false assumptions.

Repeatedly, McAdams has said that any community breaking off would lose the economies of scale that come with working together on fire, police, utilities, snow removal, and other services. What he fails to note is that none of these are lost, or even necessarily removed from the economies of scale just by forming a city. On the contrary, the difference is that members of the community, by having an equal place at the table of cities, will be able to contract for these services from the Unified Fire Department, Unified Police Department, and other county wide municipal services providers.

No economies of scale need be lost.

But local governance can be brought closer to the community it is suppose to serve by incorporating.

McAdams also says that incorporation puts up walls between cities, creating barriers with other cities. As if the people of Millcreek can’t get along with Holladay, or people in White City won’t shop in Sandy.

It’s deceptive, and it hurts the very real discussion and debate that happens in these communities about forming their own future when McAdams calls such discussions “fighting” and tries to mandate their end. When he attempts to use politics and the legislature to enforce his will, it’s just plain cheating.


Previously posted at PubliusOnline.com

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