SALT LAKE CITY — Two mayors are questioning whether their cities' taxpayer dollars have been distributed fairly over the past 14 years after they started digging into a county sales tax fund used for regional transportation projects.
Sandy, Taylorsville and Draper have been granted tens of millions of dollars from the fund since 2003, with $42.9 million, $23.5 million and $18.5 million, respectively. But South Jordan, Holladay, Herriman and South Salt Lake have received no money from the fund over the same period, according to Utah Department of Transportation records.
Mayors Dave Alvord, of South Jordan, and Robert Dahle, of Holladay, said they were at a recent conference of mayors when they learned about the fund — called the "quarter of a quarter" fund because its revenue is captured from one-quarter of the 0.25 cent sales tax for transit approved by the Legislature in 2001.
As they learned more, Alvord and Dahle said they became puzzled by the fund's past use, worried that state leaders have had too much power over how Salt Lake County tax dollars have been distributed.
They're also questioning whether a certain lobbyist, former House Speaker Greg Curtis, has had too much influence over how the funds are prioritized because many of his client cities have been collecting big year after year.
'Taxation without representation'
Alvord said when he saw the fund's history, he realized an "eye-opening disparity." According to an analysis by city employees, South Jordan residents have contributed about $20 million into the fund over its lifetime, yet they've seen no returns, the mayor said.
"I'm representing a city of 70,000 who have paid into this fund and have seen, to this day, zero spending from that fund on our city," Alvord said. "To find out we've received no money is really a case of taxation without representation."
South Jordan's city manager didn't even know how to apply for the funds, the mayor said, and essentially "the message we've received is you should have hired Greg Curtis as your lobbyist" to get on the list for funding.
"It's really kind of interesting that you see the cities that Greg Curtis represents, (and) they've all really scored," Alvord said, noting that when he and Dahle requested more information about the fund, Curtis accompanied Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, to the mayors conference.
"(Curtis) lectured us for 20 minutes," Alvord said. "He told us the history of the fund and that if people would have talked to him sooner, maybe we would have gotten more money.
"Maybe I'm old-fashioned," he added, "but I think we should have a transparent process for taxpayer money. This fund is not derived through a formula, scoring or any process. It's simply drawn up in the backrooms."
Dahle shared the same worries, calling the "optics" of the fund's past use "pretty ugly."
"When you look at where the money has flowed, it aligns quite nicely with where the Speaker of the House (Greg Hughes, R-Draper) lives, where the president of the Senate (Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy) lives, and cities that (Curtis) lobbies for," the Holladay mayor said.
"That's my issue. There's this big pool of money, we all pay into it, we all have major road needs, and so shouldn't there be some kind of merit-based project list that we all participate in vetting?"
Dahle said he worries that the fund has "turned into a political piggy bank" rather than a "merit-based process."
Niederhauser co-sponsored SB277, the bill that authorized the bonds for road funding this year. In the past, funding was prioritized through bills — which do undergo a public process for debate in committees and on the Senate and House floors, he said.
Niederhauser said he directed Harper to help write this year's list with feedback from cities. Harper says the reason some cities haven't been getting money from the fund is because they haven't been making requests.
He also contested that South Jordan officials haven't known about the fund, because "I've been down to South Jordan several times over the last five years when they've asked for money, saying we can use this (fund)."
"Anything dealing with a budget is political," Harper said when asked about Dahle's concern that the list has become too politicized. "It is a political process because you have to convince elected officials that these are the priority projects that need the money."
The fund was "never intended" to pay to fill potholes or other repair projects, Harper noted, and instead is for "projects of regional significance."
Harper said Curtis is only involved as much as a lobbyist can be and doesn't help write the distribution list.
When asked about his involvement in the fund and how the distribution list is written, Curtis said he only lobbies for his clients, and Harper has been writing the distribution list in recent years.
"I advocate on behalf of my clients, he said, "and transportation is one of my expertise. I did not draft or write the list. I have no decision-making authority in regards to this list at all. I lobby on behalf of clients for appropriation from the state, and this is just one of the funds that I lobby."
Salt Lake County approval
Mayors Alvord and Dahle this month raised concerns with Salt Lake County leaders over how the fund has been used in the past. But even though some County Council members agreed with the two mayors, the body this week approved another $47 million from the fund for projects prioritized by state leaders through the distribution list.
While it's the first year South Jordan and Herriman have been selected to receive funding — $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively — another $5.8 million will go to Draper and $5 million to Sandy.
Alvord said he's frustrated that the County Council decided to use the same distribution list written by Harper, even though Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined the county ultimately has the ability to override state recommendations because it's the legislative body that will ultimately approve the project list before UDOT issues the bond.
"They decided to accept a list that was drafted in secret, and that's troubling and disappointing to me," Alvord said.
Alvord and Dahle are encouraging the County Council to reconsider this year's distribution list, hoping the council will enact a process that's more "transparent and merit-based."
"It is a first step in correcting the imbalance in the distribution of county taxpayer funds for many years," Dahle said in an email to County Council members. "The optics associated with the distribution would be difficult to justify."
"Why not do the right thing this year?" Alvord said. "It sounds like someone that says, 'I'll quit smoking next year.' There's still time to do the right thing."
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry and council members Aimee Winder Newton and Richard Snelgrove said they share Alvord's and Dahle's concerns and voted against approving the distribution list Tuesday.
Newton and Snelgrove were also miffed by a proposal by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to use $4.7 million from the fund to pay for the already budgeted parking structure for the new district attorney building so the county could use $4.7 million from its general fund to help pay for construction of the new Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy.
"This is a shell game, and I won't be part of it," Newton said. "We've had a lot of talk about the lack of transportation dollars, and it's going to be a hard sell to the public when we're pleading for transportation dollars and we're using what's been designated for transportation for something else."
She also questioned whether the $4.7 million donation to the Hale Centre Theatre would essentially raise Sandy's benefit from the fund this year to $9.7 million.
Snelgrove said the process "just seems fishy" and called for scoring process to be created to help decide future distribution of those funds.
But County Councilman Michael Jensen argued against changing this year's distribution, saying cities have already budgeted based on Harper's distribution list. For the life of the fund, "this is the way it's been done," Jensen said.
McAdams said the county should lead the distribution process in future years but noted that it would be "unfair" for county leaders to "change direction" without involving state leaders in the discussion.
The county mayor also disagreed with the characterization that east-side cities such as Sandy and Draper have been favored over the years for transportation dollars. He argued that looking at the distribution of one fund doesn't necessarily paint a holistic picture of "winning or losing cities."
"If you look at the broader landscape of transportation funding this year, you need to look at it in the context of a ($1.47 billion) transportation bond the state is issuing," McAdams said. "Most of that billion dollars are being spent on interchanges in South Jordan and Riverton. If you look over the last 10 years, there's been a billion (spent) on the Mountain View Corridor.
"If you look at the greater landscape of transportation, the west side of Salt Lake County is the winner — and they should be — because that's where growth is happening in the Salt Lake Valley," he said.