Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — Residents in six cities considering a controversial proposal to charge a utility fee for high-speed Internet will likely be asked to vote on the issue this November.
On Wednesday, the mayors of Layton, West Valley City, Tremonton, Perry, Brigham City and Midvale announced that they intend to ask their respective city councils to authorize a ballot question on whether to charge a $18 to $20 monthly fee for the completion and continued operation of the UTOPIA fiber-optic network.
"We want our residents’ input as we move forward," Layton Mayor Bob Stevenson said. "We are working with our city councils to place this question on the November ballot, which will give our residents the chance to have their voices heard."
More than a decade ago, 11 Utah cities joined together to create the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which was envisioned to link every residence and business in participating cities to a high-speed fiber-optic network.
But operating deficits, stalled construction and low sign-up rates have left the network incomplete, serving a small base of customers and languishing in debt.
Australia-based Macquarie Capitol Group recently approached UTOPIA with an offer to take over management and finish construction of the network — realizing the initial goal of ubiquitous access — in exchange for a monthly fee levied against all residents.
The proposal split the 11 UTOPIA cities in June, with the city councils in Layton, West Valley City, Tremonton, Perry, Brigham City and Midvale voting to move forward to the second of several Macquarie milestones, while elected officials in Centerville, Lindon, Murray, Orem and Payson rejected the proposal.
Stevenson said it is not yet known whether the public vote will be binding or whether the initial estimate of an $18 to $20 fee remains viable with the loss of almost half the member cities.
He said city leaders must first authorize a ballot question to comply with county deadlines and will work to have all the necessary information for voters between now and November.
"As far as the fee goes, (Macquarie) still has to get back to us, and that will be something that hopefully in the coming weeks we will have an exact fee amount," Stevenson said. "What we’re hoping is that we can get all those types of answers in the coming months."
Questions about the legality of the utility fee model have been raised, particularly by the Utah Taxpayers Association, which launched a petition and website at uNOpia.org aimed at educating residents about "one of the worst boondoggles in Utah history."
Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said his organization will continue to work through the legal questions and inform voters about the potential consequences of accepting a mandatory monthly fee for Internet service.
"The taxpayers association has hoped for more than a decade that the public, the taxpayers, would have an opportunity like this," Van Tassell said. "It’s thrilling to hear that these cities have decided to listen to the taxpaying public."
Wayne Pyle, West Valley city manager and chairman of the UTOPIA board, said a public vote provides an opportunity to inform voters of the issues and arrive at a consensus.
"The advantage of it, we feel, is so overwhelming, so compelling if you understand the information and you’re able to get that information before you," Pyle said of the Macquarie proposal. "Hopefully, this kind of measure will put the impetus in making that communication actually take place."
If more cities were to withdraw from the Macquarie plan, it could potentially threaten the viability of the proposal, Pyle said. But he added that the six cities that agreed to move ahead represent almost two-thirds of the total UTOPIA customer base, and their municipal leaders have already voted in support of the utility fee model.
Whether voters accept or reject the plan, it will provide finality on the issue to either move forward or pursue other options for improving the embattled network, Pyle said.
"It’s a pretty clear question after that," he said. "If the people speak and the ballot proposition doesn’t pass, then OK, then we know, and we have to move on to some other way of figuring out how to take care of this."
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