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Friday, September 26, 2008
Amateur Hour at City Hall

Or maybe it's amateur year. Here are notes on the upcoming American Fork bond issues.

[This is slightly edited since posting, to add a piece of information I originally left out.]

I went to Tuesday evening's public hearing on the five bond issues on the November ballot in American Fork. I didn't expect it to last an hour, but it did. I actually had to miss the last few minutes, but I'm told it was only a few. I'll dive straight into my commentary on the first 57 minutes of the hearing, and I'll provide a few details about the bond issues along the way. In a later post I'll backtrack a bit and tell you more fully why I'm thinking what I'm thinking.

(For a more neutral and objective report on the hearing and a sampling of public comments, see Barbara Christiansen's article in Thursday's American Fork Citizen, which ought to be at the Daily Herald web site by now, but is not.)

It Really Was an Hour, and It Really Was Amateurish

The hearing began on time at 7:00 p.m. It was scheduled to precede the ordinary 7:30 p.m. City Council meeting, so I couldn't be certain how many of the 40 or so people there (not counting City staff and officials) were interested in the the hearing and not the meeting. It appeared to be at least a couple of dozen.

First, there was a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation which was prepared by highly-paid professionals, but really didn't look ready for prime time. It had some but not enough of the essential information, was difficult for the audience to follow, and seemed to present more basic questions than answers.

Then the floor was opened to comment. In this my fellow residents generally acquitted themselves well, mostly asking sensible questions. Sure, there was one rude guy, not counting the men in the room who were still wearing their baseball caps, and there was a condescending comment or two from people who really didn't know what they were talking about. But in general, folks, you weren't just there; you were good.

I'll enumerate the bond issues shortly, but let's dispense with some general notes first.

Councilman Shirl LeBaron cited at some length a recent study showing that most Utahans -- I don't know whether that's 50.1 percent or 98.3 percent or how many -- pay between one and three and a half percent of their annual income in property taxes. His point appeared to be that our property taxes are low, so there is room to increase them. (By the way, one translation of "five bond issues" is "five property tax increases.") In the cheap seats near the back of the room, where I was sitting, this idea was not well received. Heads shook, lips pursed.

Then it got worse. In responding to a question about funding road repairs, Mayor Thompson said the funds were coming from this year's "slight" property tax increase. This time the public displeasure was audible all around me, though I doubt Mayor Thompson heard much it at the front of the room. People did not like the word "slight." Come to think of it, neither do I. It seems disingenuous to say that this year's increase -- whether you prefer to call it almost 10 percent (over last year) or more than 17 percent (over this year's certified rate) -- slight. I began to hear my fellow voters whispering that they thought the Mayor and some of the Council were condescending and patronizing.

Along the way, one gentleman pointed out that they had told us the impact on a typical household of each bond issue separately, but he wanted to know the total, if all five bond issues pass. Using a five-page handout available at the meeting, I had added up the numbers before he was finished asking the question. City staff didn't know the number without doing the math rather laboriously in the meeting, by going back to the PowerPoint presentation and extracting the numbers from the appropriate five slides, one by one. My point is not that they are bad at math; doing math under pressure is a tenuous, error-prone exercise; one proceeds cautiously. My point is that they didn't already have that rather obvious number calculated, at their disposal, and, for that matter, in the presentation.

At least in the case of this little addition problem, they were ultimately able to answer the question. There were other important questions which no official, elected or otherwise, was prepared to answer . . .

. . . because it is Amateur Hour at City Hall.

Nostalgia for 2006

By now, if you're still reading, you probably think I'm being too demanding and critical. Perhaps I am. But I keep remembering the excellent City effort to inform and publicize two years ago, when the one large bond issue was proposed for pressurized irrigation. I don't suppose that effort was perfect, but it looked and sounded professional. We didn't feel patronized or condescended to. There was a sense that the Mayor, City Council, and City staff had done their homework and come up with the best solution to a real and significant problem. They made their case tirelessly and well, and they got their vote.

So I'm not just being an idealist and saying things should be better. I'm saying that have been better recently, just two years ago, and that this administration used to know how to do better. It appears that they either have either forgotten their sense of professionalism, lost the power to tell the difference between professionalism and its opposites, or stopped thinking it's important.

There is more evidence of this to follow, as we enumerate the bonds.

Proposed Bond Issue 1: Roads and a Bridge

The first bond involves a debt principal of $4.32 million and would increase the annual property tax on a $240,000 primary residence by about $37 per year.

The language is rather loose, and uses the phrase "including, but not limited to" in referring to two specific roads projects, so perhaps it could involve more than these two. In any case, the two projects are extending 1120 North through to 900 West, which needs to happen, and some work on 900 West at 700 North, which also needs to happen. The former would take some traffic pressure off other streets which are overloaded; the latter is the most-overloaded of those streets and is already failing, in the sense of being wholly inadequate to the current traffic. The down-side of this is that, if extended soon, 1120 North will take some of Highland's east-west traffic, too, relieving some of the pressure on Highland to reverse its decades-long neglect of the need for east-west routes.

But the experts tell me there's a bigger problem, and one or two of the residents who commented on this at the hearing raised it, too: This bond issue would not fund improvements to 900 West between 700 North and 1120 North. They are already needed, and the additional traffic reaching 900 West at 1120 North, when it is extended, will likely make the need much more dire. In other words, if this bond issue is going to happen, it should be bigger. If we're going to do it, we ought to do it right.

Proposed Bond Issue 2: Finish Art Dye Park

This bond issue would involve a principal of $3.855 million and an annual tax increase for that typical $240,000 home of $33 per year.

Finishing Art Dye Park would be an excellent thing, I agree, including widening the road leading into it, so that parking along it does not create such a hazard. Overall, the project will be more expensive than it should be, because it will cost the City some serious money to remove material the City has dumped there in recent years, but it is what it is. Above all, it's hard to see how this is an equal priority with the road work in the first bond issue or the cemetery expansion in the third. This says to me, the timing is wrong. And  I think it suggests that the City needs to do a better job evaluating its priorities than it has done.

Proposed Bond Issue 3: Cemetery Expansion

This bond issue would involve a principal of $3.12 million and an annual tax increase for a $240,000 home of $27 per year.

The American Fork Cemetery is nearly filled to capacity, and the need to expand it is clear. I would be sorely tempted to vote for this bond issue, except that we found out Tuesday evening that the City has not done its homework.

The bond issue is intended for the purchase of a specific piece of land. Here's the problem: The item is already on the November ballot, but a study to determine whether the land is even suitable for cemetery use is not yet finished. Nor is the study to determine the fair market value of the land. Not only do we not know the price -- even though there is already a specific number on the ballot -- we don't even know yet whether the land could do what we want it to do.

What I really want to say to the City is something like this: Go do your homework, and come back when you're really ready for a cemetery bond issue. All I'll really be able to say at the voting booth in November is: No.

Proposed Bond Issue 4: Trails and Open Space

This bond issue would involve a principal of $2.29 million and an annual tax increase for a $240,000 home of $19.50 per year.

The intent here is to fund completion of some trails in the city and the purchase of one small piece of open space, a plot of undeveloped land southeast of the American Fork Cemetery. If I have trouble giving the Art Dye Park completion equal priority with roads and cemetery expansion, I have even more trouble with this. I like trails and open space, but I don't see that either is sufficiently important right now to justify this bond issue's place on this November's ballot.

Proposed Bond Issue 5: 560 West Extension

This bond issue would involve a principal of $5.03 million and an annual tax increase for a $240,000 home of $43 per year.

Extending 560 West south across the railroad track to Pacific Drive has been talked about for years. Some people in the area favor it; some don't, in part because they think 560 West will turn into a race track. And there are complications. First, some modifications to other nearby streets and intersections would be necessary. Second, and more importantly, there is a requirement that two railroad crossings be closed for every one that is opened. Apparently, American Fork closed one crossing recently and would only have to choose one more.

It stands to reason that closing a crossing would require altering traffic patterns at that point, which would come with a price tag. Here's the thing: The City has not selected a crossing to close. Since it has not, how is it possible to know the cost of closing it and rearranging traffic patterns? How, therefore, can the amount of this proposed bond issue be anything but a guess?

Here, again, the City has not finished its homework before picking a number and proposing a bond issue.

How to Vote

I will not tell you how to vote. I will say that if I were inclined to vote for one or two of the bond issues, my reasoning would be as follows.

The trails/open space and Art Dye Park bond issues are lower priority than the others, so I won't consider them further this year. I'd love to see Art Dye Park finished, even though I never use it, but this is not the year for it, either.

As noted, the City hasn't done its homework on the cemetery and 560 West bonds, so I won't be voting for them. Otherwise I would seriously consider voting for the cemetery bond.

If first bond did not exclude improvements of 900 West between 700 North and 1120 North -- and if they hadn't already raised my taxes more than 17 percent, and if they hadn't frustrated me with their half-baked approach to all this -- I would vote for it, even though it means a tax increase.

Maybe you're less cranky, demanding, and frustrated and more conciliatory than I am these days, at least where my local government is concerned. Maybe you'll vote for one or two or all five of the things. That's fine with me; I'll pay my taxes even if you raise them. (I don't have a lot of good alternatives.) But I won't be voting for any of them. And I'll be surprised if even one of them passes.

In a later post -- because this one is pretty long already -- I'll say more about why I think the City is behaving so differently now that it did two years ago with the pressurized irrigation bond issue.

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