County council discusses infrastructure coalition proposal
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Jul 17, 2014 | 1703 views | 0 0 comments | 49 49 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Officials from seven eastern Utah counties want to speak with one voice on regional development issues. But critics fear their proposal to create a new centralized government authority could transfer decision-making powers into the hands of only a few people.

The Grand County Council is in the process of reviewing a draft interlocal agreement to form an infrastructure development coalition with Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan and Uintah counties.

If approved, the coalition would plan for and develop new and future infrastructure — including highways, energy pipelines, water storage facilities, rail lines and tourist amenities — across the region.

It would also promote multiple uses of eastern Utah’s natural resources in ways that “balance environmental values and sensitive natural features” with access, use and development of those resources, the draft agreement states.

Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said the coalition would strengthen the region’s voice at the state and national levels in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C.

“It would give the seven counties more unity and power in dealing with the Wasatch Front and the Potomac,” Jackson said.

But Mary Mullen McGann, who is running for a seat on the county council, cautions that the agreement could lead to a potential loss of local control over issues that affect Grand County.

With its thriving tourist industry, strong property values and diverse political views, Grand County has little in common with the other counties, McGann said.

Given the questions that she and others have about the proposal’s effects on local governance, project financing and related issues, McGann said that council members should not be in any hurry to sign the agreement.

“It’s a big commitment, and I think we ought to take our time to study it,” she said July 9.

County voice in coalition is a major concern

Although the coalition would include a voting member from each of the seven counties, a simple majority of four members could approve items that come up for a vote.

Grand County Council vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs voiced her reluctance to support any agreement that would shift power away from the county’s elected officials.

“I don’t think that I would want to give away any ability for a seven-member coalition to [vote] … because it only takes four of them, and we may not be in favor of it,” Tubbs said.

Both McGann and local resident Marc Thomas share concerns that the agreement would empower a simple majority of coalition members to approve potentially controversial projects or enterprises.

“It could place disproportionate power in the hands of the few — something that led to reforming Grand County government 20 years ago,” Thomas said.

For the same reasons, McGann thinks that people of all political persuasions should be concerned that a single elected public official from Grand County would be speaking on behalf of every resident.

“People in this county want more representation,” she said. “That’s why we have this form of government.”

McGann also fears that county taxpayers could wind up on the hook for projects that they might not support, although Jackson said that everyone wants to make sure that never happens.

Not all seven counties would need to be on board for a given project to move forward if it only involved a small number of counties, he said. Nor could the coalition force an individual member county into a project that it has no interest in, according to Jackson.

“And we’ll make absolutely certain that that is the case,” he said.

According to Jackson, any member counties would be free to choose whether or not they want to be involved in a particular project.

If any specific infrastructure projects did come up, supplemental agreements would be put in place to cover them, he said.

“That would spell out which counties are going to be involved [and] what that participation would look like,” he said.

If Grand County, for instance, chose to join in on a project through a secondary agreement, the county council would have a chance to review the document ahead of time, he said.

Grand County Council member Gene Ciarus said he has some concerns that the draft doesn’t identify where two of the coalition’s at-large members would come from. But for the most part, Ciarus said he believes the proposed agreement is “pretty well-written.”

“It does give us the authority to participate, or back out,” he said.

Questions about funding sources

According to Jackson, funding for any identified infrastructure projects would “likely” come from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB), or from federal grants and loans.

A draft county resolution in support of the proposal says that the coalition would not have the power to levy taxes. Nor could it go into debt for or on behalf of a member county, the draft resolution states.

Member counties could potentially share their tax revenues or other funding sources with project participants. But none of the counties would be obligated to do so, according to the draft resolution.

The coalition, in turn, may also help local communities by giving them funding, according to the draft agreement.

Based on her own reading of the draft, however, McGann believes it’s short on specifics about potential projects, as well as possible funding sources.

“It’s unclear as to what types of projects they’re considering, and where the money is coming from,” she said.

Changes proposed to agreement

Thomas said he hopes that the coalition ultimately backs away from its primary goal of promoting natural resources extraction.

The coalition should resist the temptation to function solely as an agency of transportation and utility “pork projects” that end up causing irreparable harm to the area’s natural wonders, Thomas said.

“These are features that brought many of us to live here in the first place,” he added.

Instead, any language in the agreement should encourage the coalition to plan for all components that contribute to the area’s quality of life, as well as its economic vitality, Thomas said.

Jackson said the coalition is driven to some extent by the region’s infrastructure and transportation needs. But the agreement also provides for improvements to tourist and recreational assets, should those needs arise, he said.

The county council is expected to vote on the agreement and the associated resolution in August, according to Jackson.

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