Opinionated @ CFE

Local Government Websites Suck (And They Don't Have To!)

Jan
13

Local government is the most important level of government there is. No level has more power to directly impact your day-to-day life with services such as police, fire, garbage pick-up, and plowing. Because of this impact, it’s important to try and keep up with what they’re doing. It can often be really hard, though, to show up to meetings from 2-4 times a month and sit through lengthy discussions about zoning, business permits, and other mundane but necessary minutiae of running a city or county. Because I’m at home every evening with a toddler while my wife goes to school, it’s near-impossible for me to make the trek of almost 90 blocks to keep tabs on the Salt Lake County Council. I thought I could find an easy way to keep up on them via the county website; I thought wrong.

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Where I Stand 2010: State Constitutional Amendments and Salt Lake County Ballot Question

Oct
18

Every year, I spend a considerable amount of time studying each candidate and, if needed, attempting to contact them to get answers to specific questions. I would strongly encourage each of you to do the same. Here are my picks for the constitutional amendments and county ballot questions.

State Constitutional Amendment A: This amendment is supposed to clarify that all union elections should also be by secret ballot, not just public elections. That said, I see a couple of problems. First off, the current wording should already cover union elections and require a secret ballot. Second, I’m reasonably sure that federal labor regulations via the National Labor Relations Board would end up trumping it (not that I’m particularly fond of said regulations, but you get the point). There’s also no particular current issue abuses by unions that I see going on right now. Basically, it’s another message amendment intended to act as a counter to eliminating the secret ballot at the federal level should the ironically-named Employee Free Choice Act pass. I’m voting YES on Amendment A, but only because I like secret ballots and I think it’s something worth picking a fight over.

State Constitutional Amendment B: This amendment clarifies residency requirements for anyone appointed to fill the remainder of a term of office. Given the recent resignations plaguing the legislature, it’s no wonder such an issue came up. It seems like a reasonable change, so I’m voting YES on Amendment B.

State Constitutional Amendment C: This amendment provides additional tax exemptions to water supply equipment. Apparently it would expand it from irrigation to include selling water to a municipal entity (or at least that’s how I understand it). I guess it’s intended to create incentives for private water rights holders to sell their excess to thirsty cities. Water’s pretty important, though I’m not entirely okay with crafting out special tax rules. I’m voting YES on Amendment C, but with reservations.

State Constitutional Amendment D: This amendment will create a new ethics panel to vet complaints against legislators. Honestly, it’s kind of weak sauce since their only purpose is to investigate a complaint and, if cause is found, refer it back to the House or Senate for action. Either chamber could just sit on it, not a terribly uncommon outcome. All the same, it’s a move in the right direction, and finding cause for the complaint is enough noise to put pressure on the House or Senate to do something. I’m voting YES on Amendment D since it beats the everliving snot out of the UEG petition and moves in the right direction.

Salt Lake County Proposition 1: Really, Salt Lake County? In a year where you hit us with a tax increase AND a police services bill, you come to us asking to pony up a couple more bucks a head for 15 years to build a museum? Doesn’t that seem like asking for a lot? I know, we approved the new Canyons School District bond, so you figure we’re suckers for raising our own taxes at every turn. Here’s a better idea: find the money elsewhere and avoid paying the interest. It’s not that I don’t think that a natural history museum is important, just that I don’t think that it’s important enough to pull out the county credit card. I’m voting NO on Proposition 1 to encourage the county to avoid debt except for essentials.

Where I Stand 2010: County and Local Offices

Oct
15

Every year, I spend a considerable amount of time studying each candidate and, if needed, attempting to contact them to get answers to specific questions. I would strongly encourage each of you to do the same. Here are my picks for the county and local offices.

Salt Lake County Council At-Large B: I was thankfully able to eliminate one candidate in this race almost immediately. Warren T. Rogers spends his entire campaign website talking about federal issues, but not one lick of anything about local things like the townships, transportation, the Unified Police Department and it’s fee… nothing. That kind of gross ignorance cannot be allowed in local governance. It comes down to a race between a well-known (and somewhat combative) journalist, Holly Mullen, and a Republican Party insider, Richard Snelgrove. I e-mailed both candidates some questions and didn’t initially get a response. After a public upbraiding and second round of e-mails, I had received responses from both candidates within a couple of days.

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A Lack of Communication in the Salt Lake County Council At-Large Race

Oct
11

As a resident of an unincorporated township, I have a special interest in who gets elected to the Salt Lake County Council. After all, I depend on the county for police, fire, garbage, plow, and a host of other municipal services. Sadly, I’m finding that the two candidates I’d like to choose from don’t appear to be very interested in my vote.

On September 30, I e-mailed both Holly Mullen and Richard Snelgrove a series of questions about their candidacy. (I had already eliminated the Constitution Party candidate as entirely unqualified for the office.) As of this writing, I have received no response from either of them. Did I send offensive questions? Did I ask too many? Are they not relevant to the office which they seek? Check them out for yourself and you decide:

1) I currently reside in White City Township, an island surrounded by Sandy. Because of the close geographical proximity to Sandy and dependence on city businesses for darn near everything (gas, groceries, etc.), it almost feels as if we’re a non-voting part of the city. What role do you see the council playing in working with Sandy to insure that the needs of White City are being met?

2) Do you have any opinions about UTOPIA? If residents wanted to form a Special Assessment Area to bring UTOPIA services to their neighborhood, would you support or promote it?

3) While I appreciate the novel way in which the Unified Police District fee is being used to collect revenue in a level way from all property owners, I have concerns that this kind of creativity could provoke a negative response from the Legislature. Do you think any changes need to happen regarding the service fee? If so, what would you propose to augment or replace it?

4) As mentioned above, the legislature can sometimes pass bills targeted at restricting actions by local governments that they do not approve of. Do you currently have a working relationship with anyone in the Legislature so that the county is better heard?

5) It appears that most mass transit in Salt Lake County takes an “all roads lead to downtown” approach. I’m concerned that while this may maximize ridership, it sharply reduces usability for anyone not going there. At the same time, it seems like there’s a news story every few months about how money is being spent unwisely on personnel costs, primarily at the top. What kinds of measures will you propose to improve the operations of UTA?

Huh. Those seem like perfectly reasonable questions to me, but neither Mullen nor Snelgrove will respond. That leaves me to figure out what kind of elected official they would be based on their campaign websites and public profile. This, however, doesn’t end up being helpful at all.

Mullen doesn’t even bother to have an issue section on her website. No, I’m not making that up; go see for yourself. How can a candidate seeking an office to represent over 1M people not even be bothered to state her policy priorities? Combing through the blog on her site yields very little in the way of tangible positions. Most of it is thanking her supporters (who I can only imagine are either hardcore partisans or have the magic decoder ring required to see where she stands) or touting her various endorsements. Occasionally, you’ll find something about a relatively small portion of the job of running the county like old age services or open spaces. There’s nothing on townships, nothing on the policing fee, and nothing on any of the other core services managed by the county. Is Mullen expecting to coast to victory on her name recognition or party identification? It sure seems like it.

Snelgrove at least has the courtesy to list some issues, but it’s a somewhat incomplete list as well. Yes, I’d rather not see a county-funded hotel either and I like open spaces, but what about transportations, townships, and getting along with the legislature? There’s also the partisan attacks and constant complaining about liberals. News flash: not everyone is a partisan, and slamming a party with a thin majority in the county isn’t exactly a winning strategy. I’m also not impressed that Snelgrove goes on the attack about tax increases, yet fails to mention the deep cuts that the county made just the year before. Selective truth-picking isn’t a good quality.

For both of them, I have little hope that constituents will be heard after the election. They appear to both be content with the close supporters calling the shots. Failing to respond to an inquiry from a voter does not bode well for the future of the seat.

UPDATE: Both of them got back to me after a second e-mailing. I know campaigns are busy, but I don’t like how this bodes for future communications attempts.

A Tax By Any Other Name

Feb
15

Local governments all around are facing some tough times and Salt Lake County is no different. The county had to make some deep cuts, over 17%, to make ends meet. Certainly lean times lead to creative solutions, but I’m not so sure about the way that the Unified Police Department has chosen to go about it.

As you may have read, the UPD has decided to implement a fee for police service to be collected once a quarter. This fee is about $174 per year. That in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal to me. What is a big deal is the manner in which this fee is being collected and the manner in which the county is trying to spin it. Call it a fee, a surcharge, or whatever you want, it’s still a tax.

What’s particularly laughable is that this fee is being billed as somehow much more transparent than an annual property tax statement. On the contrary, it’s even less so. My property tax statement contains line items for each service that I am receiving. I can, at a glance, figure out how much I pay for fire, library, and even garbage service. If the increase cost of policing were, instead, listed as a line item on my property tax bill, I would still know exactly what I’m paying for police service. By keeping it on a separate statement, however, I now have to start adding up various bills to figure out just how much my local government costs. Making a taxpayer do more work to figure out what they are paying and what it is for is less transparency, not more.

It’s also a non-argument that using fees instead of taxes gives the county more flexibility. If the county can’t implement flexible taxation based on residence type or the number of employees at a business, then it’s time to ask the legislature to make changes to the law. I agree in principle that businesses that create higher police costs should bear a higher portion of the burden. (You may also notice that apartments are charged more than homeowners, a tacit admission that single-dwelling units cause less crime.) It’s also a good thing to have non-profits contributing at least something to the costs of running the county. Just don’t use fees as a end-run around legislative roadblocks. That kind of behavior doesn’t solve the problem and, more often than not, incurs the wrath of the legislature with retaliatory new laws.

Why I Support Peter Corroon for Governor

Jan
11

As of late last week, the field for governor shaped up as a battle between sorta incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. Herbert hasn’t been at the helm for very long, but I already have a pretty good feel for where he’s heading, and I’m not entirely sure I like it. Like many other Utahns, I’m pretty ticked off about rolling over to the Southern Nevada Water Authority and totally hosing rural ranchers and farmers in Snake Valley. I’m also not very impressed that he’s decided to more-or-less give EnergySolutions the green light to truck in whatever the heck it is they want to from whatever state they want to. It remains to be seen if he can truly pull a rabbit out of hat to balance this year’s budget (I have a feeling he’ll pull it off), but he seems to be a bit too wary of tax increases, even if they end up being necessary.

Mayor Corroon, on the other hand, has proven himself a very capable executive in the largest county in the state. He stood fast on opposing tax increases when they weren’t necessary and proposing raising taxes when it was. I don’t feel like Salt Lake County is rolling in excess and I’m glad we have a mayor who’s willing and able to call those shots, even when it may be politically unpopular. I like taxes as low as possible just like the next guy, but I also realistically understand when things are more expensive and that you will always reach a point at which you can’t cut any more. (This in no way insinuates that there can’t be more belt-tightening at the county level, but the effort required to find more cuts may not be worth the final amount.) I’m also confident that if Corroon was governor, we wouldn’t be hand-wringing about Las Vegas water grabs or depleted uranium.

That’s what I want from a governor, someone who defines quality of life as something greater than tax revenues. I don’t feel like Gov. Herbert has done a good job in that regard, but Mayor Corroon has already proven himself by fighting the soccer stadium handout to millionaire crybaby Dave Checketts (who somehow found the money to later buy the Rams), opposing taxes when they weren’t necessary, supporting them when they are, and generally being a good manager, just what we need in the executive branch. I hope you’ll join me in supporting Mayor Corroon’s bid for higher office.

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