Sandy Mayor Steve Newton believes the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District is suffering from a "good old boy" syndrome that has left the district's spending out of control.
Newton said he plans to play the same gadfly role Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., has taken in exposing governmental problems. The mayor wants to make changes in what he calls closet government entities like the district, which he believes aren't accountable to taxpayers or ratepayers.He said Proxmire, best known for his Golden Fleece Awards spotlighting government waste and excesses, raised the consciousness level on things that were going on that made people mad.
In a time of cutbacks, tax initiative proposals and budget austerity, the conservancy district is forging ahead with construction plans that are gold-plated, Newton believes.
A board member himself since September, Newton is determined to change the way the district operates.
The most blatant example of the problem, Newton said, is the district's plan to sell its 20-year-old office and shop complex at 3495 S. Third West for $900,000 - complete with furniture - and move to a $7.6 million complex now under construction at 8200 S. 13th West in West Jordan.
"It's a classy deal," Newton said of the new building. "The issue is: Can we afford it? And my answer to that is no."
Newton believes the current facilities can be remodeled for $500,000 to meet the district's needs for the next 20 years - and maybe longer. The 50-year projections Newton said the district staff used to sell the idea of building a new office complex do not accurately reflect the district's needs for office space in the future.
Retail water sales likely will increase 10 percent or so, Newton calculates, and there will be virtually no new wholesale customers. Yet the new office complex is triple the size of the existing one - too large, he says, even though he concedes the current building is overcrowded.
Even if growth projections are accurate, building all at once to accommodate the needs of the next 50 years isn't reasonable, Newton believes. School districts, for example, don't build enough new buildings to meet the demand expected 50 years from now, because of the uncertainty and cost involved, Newton said.
Everything is done on a gold-plated basis because there are no controls. Board members are insulated from complaints because they are appointed - not elected, he said. And because most of the district's water is sold to 19 wholesale customers - dissatisfied water users are more likely to clamor to retailers rather than the wholesaler with their complaints.
The Sandy mayor said the district's staff and board has labeled his complaints a sour-grapes response to the board's recent decision to deny his city's request to leave the district. Sandy's elected officials are still negotiating an annexation deal with the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake, even though that would leave Sandy in two water districts that both levy property taxes.
Newton doesn't blame the problems he sees on the district's general manager, Robert B. Hilbert, the staff or the board. "The people are well-meaning and wonderful people - pillars of the community. But it's a natural outgrowth of unchecked government," he said. "The system stinks."
Things Newton would like to see happen with the district:
-He wants to block a $22 million revenue bond issue proposed for the early part of next year - or at least see the issue put to a public vote. The bond originally included money for the new building complex and for a major water-rights purchase. The current district plan is to pay for all of the building from reserve funds and bond for the water. Newton believes the district should have paid for the water - not a new building - with the reserves.
-He believes parts of the district's budgeting process do not conform to state statute and fundamental budgeting principles.
-He wants to see the legislative auditor general do an objective audit of the district's finances.
-Down the road, Newton wants to see the district's revenues come solely from water sales without the help of property taxes.
Newton has concluded, however, that the changes he seeks won't be made by winning the hearts of the district's staff or board members. He claims that district officials and some legislative supporters worked to block his board appointment by the governor and ratification by the state Senate.
Gov. Norm Bangerter said there was some opposition, as is the case with most appointments, but he doesn't recall anything out of the ordinary. Newton said Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, called to tell him the effort to keep him off the board was afoot, but Christensen told the Deseret News he doesn't recall any opposition.
The board typically pays little attention to Newton's comments, requests and motions during board meetings.
"You can't win friends," Newton said, calling the board a club and an advisory board rather than a decision-making body. Interwoven conflicts of interest, including personal friendships and instances of nepotism within the district, keep the board single-minded, he said.
"Bob makes sure they're very well taken care of," Newton said. "I can't beat Hilbert in the good-old-boy system, but I can be a gadfly, expose what they're doing."
Newton believes the district has a good staff. The problem is that too few questions are asked. "They make it impossible to understand the budget. What they simplify are things that are a clear priority and unassailable. . . . They complicate anything they do not want you to analyze carefully."
While he was personally going over the district's books, Newton said a staff member asked him why he didn't act like the rest of the board members.
"I'm going to make sure that the board of directors does regain control of this agency," he said.