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My view: Is Salt Lake County really a democracy?

By Colleen Whitley

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Motorists drive on 3300 South in Millcreek Township Friday, Oct. 12, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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There is discussion of a project and a bill in the Utah Legislature to force the formation of a single city from all the disparate areas of unincorporated Salt Lake County: Emigration Canyon, Millcreek, White City, Kearns, Magna, Copperton and the pockets within Sandy, all of them completely disconnected, miles from each other, each with its own identity, heritage, needs and issues.

It’s a proposal worthy of "Saturday Night Live," not a state legislature.

A map is available on the county surveyor's website, showing the existing cities, the undeveloped land, including national forests, and the remaining scattered sections of Salt Lake County.

The proposed city’s illogical borders result from 60 years of periodic plunder by established cities, abusing their right to annex anything within half a mile of their boundaries. Salt Lake City, for example, took a small strip out of the middle of a road, then formed a balloon to grab Brickyard Plaza, taking the tax-rich commercial zone but leaving the county responsible for all the surrounding residential services — after county taxpayers had paid for planning, inspections and infrastructure.

The situation would never have existed had all governments in Salt Lake County honored state law 60-odd years ago. During the building boom of the late ’50s and ’60s, developers, following the law requiring that cities provide municipal services, went to the nearest cities and asked them to provide such services. In every county the cities cooperated except those in Salt Lake County. So, contrary to law and custom, Salt Lake County issued the permits anyway and got into the municipal services business. The county has done well with it but has also built up a massive and expensive infrastructure.

The incorporation of 86 percent of the county has constantly eroded the county tax base, resulting in real problems in supporting that infrastructure — and other difficulties as well. So those few of us left in the unincorporated area are faced with living in a city of puzzle pieces that can never fit together, annexing to existing cities, or becoming cities ourselves — and residents of each area should be allowed their own options. If this city is created as proposed, no area will ever be able to leave or annex elsewhere: All of those communities will lose all rights to self-determination.

Should the Legislature pass this measure, we will vote in 2015, but that should not be a simple yes/no vote. If some areas want to become a county/city, they should be free to do so, but their votes should not be used to force areas that want no part of it. There are other, much better, options.

A far more logical and certainly more just solution would be to work with each area and the cities near it. Two examples: If those small, isolated pockets within Sandy’s borders want to join Sandy, Sandy should accept them. It will certainly make life easier for 911 dispatchers, who have had difficulty determining whether to send the Sandy services or UPD to an emergency call. Had Salt Lake City accepted Emigration Canyon years ago, it could have included them in the Salt Lake School District, sparing generations of children an hour on the bus every day to attend school in Millcreek.

We need a solution, but we also need far more discussion on this issue and far more options, not just the carefully orchestrated presentations the county has made to this point. Democracy involves real choices for all citizens.

Colleen Whitley is a retired teacher (junior high, high school, Job Corps, training adults on welfare, and BYU). She has worked in civic causes in Salt Lake County for 40 years, among other things, helping to organize community councils.

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