The 14-year-old boy stands between the doors of Wasatch Junior High on Sept. 13, offering “Vote No” pamphlets to those entering the building for a presentation on why the citizens of Millcreek should vote in November to become a city instead of remaining part of unincorporated Salt Lake County. A middle-age woman tells the boy he has no right to do this. He replies that the school had said it was fine, holding his own against her anger.
Tempers are running high in Millcreek’s usually peaceful, tree-lined, unincorporated 46 square miles in east-central Salt Lake Valley. Its population of 63,500 has found itself in the middle of an escalating war of words and accusations as residents decide whether or not to become a city. “Local control and money drives these kinds of issues,” says Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
Mark Crockett, Republican candidate for Salt Lake County mayor, says it’s not a Millcreek story so much as “a west-side story.” He worries that the county doesn’t have a plan in place for unincorporated Kearns and Magna if Millcreek, which is the largest part of unincorporated Salt Lake County, becomes a city. In the event Millcreek votes to incorporate, Corroon acknowledges the unincorporated west side might face “a cut in services or a potential tax increase.”
Beyond the back-and-forth over whether becoming a city will lead to higher taxes is the question of whether unincorporated Salt Lake County’s future is one of being municipally serviced by Salt Lake County and an independent regional police and fire service, or of following a model based on municipal services provided by individual cities.
While some might scratch their heads over Crockett as a candidate inserting himself into a highly divisive issue, it all depends on where you are standing. Crockett has long been a proponent of Millcreek becoming a city, and if he weren’t living in an annexed part of Holladay, “I’d be leading the charge to incorporation myself,” he says. “I know Mayor Corroon, [Salt Lake County Councilman] Jim Bradley and Sheriff [Jim] Winder deeply believe we should go to metro government, that the cities should be less powerful and the county more. I’m not even sure they’re wrong.” But, he continues, with 16 cities in the valley, that’s “just never going to happen.”
Wasatch Junior High’s main auditorium is packed with at least 300 people waiting to hear the pro-incorporation testimonies of Crockett and Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore—“We’re the [most recent] city to incorporate, what better model?” he asks.
First to speak is Margie Lamb, of pro-incorporation group The Future of Millcreek. She sweeps through the history of Millcreek’s pro-incorporation movement, touching on how she and others got enough signatures to get Salt Lake County to pay for a feasibility study, noting that a change in the law meant the group had enough signatures to put incorporation up for a vote on this November’s ballot.
But the story of how Millcreek’s population came to vote on whether it should remain unincorporated or become a city is more complicated than that.
In 2008, a determined group of would-be incorporators began to gather the 10 percent of Millcreek landowners’ signatures needed for the county to finance a feasibility study. Once Rick Barnes—Scout executive of the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which owns 900 acres within the township—had signed on behalf of the Scouts a petition calling for the study, the pro-lobby was firmly on its way to its first goal.
Salt Lake County hired local government financial consultant Lewis, Young, Robertson, & Burningham, Inc., (LYRB), to do the study. The resulting June 2011 study showed that incorporation was feasible, although it forecast an annual 1 percent sales-tax-revenue growth against the rising expenditures of a new city, which include a $200,000 salary for a mayor. If the proposed city were to contract with the county for services such as law enforcement between 2011 and 2016, it would end up $2.2 million in the hole, while if it self-provided or contracted out those services to another city, the total loss rose to $12.3 million, according to the report’s projections.
More problems beset the incorporators when incorporation foe Roger Dudley says he informed the Boy Scouts that their signatures were being used a second time to put the vote on the ballot.
Barnes says he had asked the pro-incorporators several times if his signature was only for the study. “They assured me it was.” So, in January 2012, Barnes withdrew the signatures. Since the Boy Scouts is a nonprofit, Barnes says, “Our officers felt it was important the decision be made by taxpayers.”
In the 2012 legislative session, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, sponsored House Bill 502, which lowered the threshold of votes needed to put an incorporation vote on the ballot from 33 percent of landowners to 10 percent of registered voters. This all but cleared the way to put Millcreek’s incorporation onto the ballot.
In Utah, Corroon says bitterly, if you don’t like a result, you get the law changed.
But Brown says he was unaware when filing HB502 that residents of Millcreek were pushing to become a city. “My motive at the time was for people to get [incorporation] to a vote with as little intrusion as possible. It was not my motivation, nor did I have any interest in what’s going on in Millcreek.”
With the feasibility study not exactly a ringing endorsement for incorporation, The Future of Millcreek paid the consultants $5,000 to produce a new document. State law keeps pro-incorporators from producing a supplement to the feasibility study, so instead, the firm analyzed Millcreek’s future fiscal health, based on Salt Lake County’s own sales-tax revenue projections. The new LYRB figures revealed a $6.5 million increase in sales-tax revenues from the original study.
The new report doesn’t sit well with Corroon. “I haven’t seen the new study, but I’d highly question a firm changing its results for a new client. It borders on being at least unprofessional and, at worst, unethical.”
LYRB’s Jason Burningham expresses surprise at Corroon’s criticism, finding it, he says, “somewhat confusing,” given that his firm had consulted with Salt Lake County’s attorney after they had been approached by The Future of Millcreek to look at four items relating to incorporation. Burningham says the county told his firm that while they couldn’t do an addendum to the original study, they could do a fiscal analysis.
Millcreek resident Dave Miner says the problem with the original feasibility study was an example of the “golden rule—who has the gold makes the rules.” Since “the county was the contracting agent, they had the last say” over, for example, what Miner says were the “low-balled” estimates for sales-tax-revenue growth. So, the incorporators had LYRB simply provide “an update on the sales-tax projection.”
Along with the new numbers, accusations of misinformation fly from both sides. Corroon and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jani Iwamoto, who represents most of the Millcreek township, both react strongly to pro-incorporators stoking a “fear of annexation [by neighboring cities] as a reason to incorporate, when, in fact, borders are essentially intact,” Corroon says. That’s a view incorporators disagree with, claiming on a flier handed out at the Sept. 13 meeting that four adjacent cities have plans to take part or all of Millcreek.
The pro-incorporators also sent out a postcard that claimed the county had raised property taxes cumulatively over 16 years by as much as 115.55 percent, though cities like Holladay, Taylorsville and Cottonwood Heights had seen property taxes rise 11.7 percent, at most, over the same period. The county responded with articles in the Millcreek Journal that stated the comparison wasn’t “apples to apples” because the pro-incorporators had included in their figures the taxes for fire and police service, which are not part of Salt Lake County government.
Anti-incorporators have also been accused of disseminating false information, namely, claiming that cities like Cottonwood Heights are burdened with mounting debt, when, according to Cottonwood Heights city manager Liane Stillman, quoted in a pro-incorporation ad, her city “has never raised taxes or added fees [and has] no debt.”
Crockett acknowledges that incorporation has become a divisive issue. “There are perhaps as many rumors on both sides as there are facts. People should do their homework, make their decision, but it’s not a reason to be mad at your neighbor.”