For a few moments in the hectic, waning hours of the 101st Congress early Sunday morning, representatives and senators turned their attention to tiny Bluffdale in southwest Salt Lake County.
They approved a land swap to eliminate private property inside the Camp Williams Military Reservation and improve the firing range, solving a public-safety problem that has plagued Bluffdale for years at a cost to federal taxpayers of a little more than $1 million.Just two weeks before the budget-battered Congress adjourned, they also added $500,000 to an earlier $500,000 appropriation to improve a buffer zone between Hercules' potentially explosive operations and residential neighborhoods in West Valley City.
During the past year, they approved a $55,000 Community Development Block Grant to buy a parcel of land to extend a road in Riverton.
They surprised Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County with a $500,000 appropriation for development of low- and moderate-income housing for the elderly. Local officials indicated they are considering using the unexpected money for a joint city-county housing project near the county government complex at 2100 S. State.
In more widely publicized (and expensive) votes, Congress contributed $5 million to the Salt Lake Valley's light-rail project; $2.55 million to build a bridge over railroad tracks on 900 South in Provo; and $12.2 million for National Guard helicopter support buildings at the municipal airport in West Jordan.
At little or no cost to taxpayers, they renamed the new Orem post office in honor of the late Sen. Arthur V. Watkins; the Provo federal building in honor of the late Utah Congressman J. Will Robinson; and Salt Lake City's federal courthouse in honor of former Sen. Frank E. Moss.
These are recent examples - increasingly rare, according to local officials - of the government farthest from the people responding to the governments closest to the people.
"We're not getting nearly as much help as we did in the past," said West Valley Mayor Brent F. Anderson, citing the elimination of federal revenue sharing. "When they took that away from us - it was in excess of $1 million a year - we had to cut services. I guess it comes under the heading of `How to Reduce the Federal Debt.' "
With the dawning of the mega-deficit era, cities and towns were among the first to feel the pinch. Politicians everywhere now recognize that the legendary "pork barrel" is no longer bottomless.
Riverton Mayor James Warr noted that while his community is getting about $55,000 in federal block grant money this year, it got about $100,000 six years ago.
Times are tough, and the federal-local partnership is strained. Many local officials in the Salt Lake Valley are particularly disappointed by Congress' failure to authorize Central Utah Project funding for preservation and enhancement of wetlands along the Jordan River.
Sandy Mayor Lawrence Smith said his city and West Jordan had hoped to use CUP money for land purchases that would have finally made Jordan River recreation developments possible.
"As you know, there isn't much available in the tight federal budget anymore for cities," Smith said philosophically, "and that (Sandy's request for CUP money) really would have been a pork barrel."
Murray Mayor Lynn Pett, whose city had requested federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and drug enforcement assistance as well as CUP money, was also disappointed.
"They keep talking on a national level about how they are going to help local governments, but we haven't seen any of it yet," Pett said.
South Salt Lake Mayor Jim Davis said his city sought Congress' help in obtaining Department of Energy certification for the Vitro tailings site so that the land could be developed. Time ran out before Congress acted on the request, however, and South Salt Lake must wait and try again next year.
Bluffdale Mayor Lee G. Wanlass was among the minority of local mayors who had reason to thank the 101st Congress. The last-minute approval of the Camp Williams land exchange bill - which was sponsored by Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah - is expected to solve a serious problem in his town.
Under provisions of the bill, the Bureau of Land Management will exchange property it owns for private land within the boundaries of Camp Williams and also improve security. Wanlass said Bluffdale residents who own and use the parcels inside the military zone find it unnerving to have National Guard howitzer shells whistling overhead.
"Both the community and the guard were concerned for public safety, and we're pleased that Congress has done something about it," Wanlass said.
Reid Ivins, Nielson's administrative assistant, said the local government requests during the past year should not be characterized as "pork barrel" projects. "In almost every instance, they have been reasonable requests for assistance."
The $500,000 appropriation for the Hercules buffer, for example, addresses West Valley economic development and public-safety issues, he said. West Valley's mayor said the money will be used for roads and sidewalks at the West Ridge Commerce Park to attract private development.
Not all local government requests for congressional help have a price tag, Ivins said, pointing to Nielson's opposition to establishment of a bird refuge at Provo Bay. "He fought hard against it because the local officials opposed it."
Nielson does, in fact, get higher marks from local government officials than Utah's other members of Congress. Several mayors and administrators said Nielson has consistently been more accessible and responsive than the others.
- Urban issues writers JoAnn Jacobsen-Wells and Jay Evensen contributed to this story.