The overall outlook for Utah County this year is good, but the county's long-term economic growth could be in jeopardy unless local officials get serious about protecting and developing water rights and resources, says County Commissioner Brent Morris.

Morris, named this week as commission chairman for 1989, said water issues will top his priority list of commission duties this year."Water, to me, is the most important issue this year," said Morris, who organized the Utah County Water Advisory Board last year. He said economic development goes hand in hand with adequate water resources.

"I don't see that changing now or in the next 10 years. It's a very important issue facing government officials, especially in Utah County."

Morris said he hopes growing public awareness of water issues can be channeled into protecting water rights.

Provo River flow, threatened last fall by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and eventually reduced in November, is a prime example of the need for local officials to work together in protecting water rights, Morris said. Nevertheless, it's probably going to take political pressure to convince some local leaders that water rights must be protected, he said.

Morris also hopes to see a Utah Lake authority established to oversee development of the lake and its resources. The Utah County Council of Governments supports establishment of an authority, which would need legislative approval and funding.

The state's Utah Lake Advisory Committee, for which Morris is chairman, and the local Utah Lake Study Committee are expected to support establishment of an authority board as well. The key to development of the lake's economic and recreational potential is broad-based legislative support and necessary funding, Morris said.

"We'd see a lot of dreams about Utah Lake become a reality as far as cleaning it up and making it valuable."

Also this year, Morris hopes to see resolution of funding problems at Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center that resulted from the center's $3.5 million scandal. Approximately half that amount came from Medicaid funding.

If Medicaid threatens to withhold future funding from the state until misused money is repaid, the State Division of Social Services likely would pass that threat on to Utah County and withhold funding from Timp Mental Health.

Morris, however, doesn't feel the county has any responsibility to pay back those funds. He said the county, state and federal Medicaid program all are victims of the scandal.

"To tell one victim to pay restitution to one or two other victims is ridiculous," he said. "There's no one here to teach a lesson to. No one is going to gain anything by withholding those funds. It would be better for them to write off the loss and move forward."

If funding is withheld, Morris said, "The losers of the whole thing would be the recipients of those services. Why penalize the state, the county and the patients?"

Another pressing issue this year, Morris said, is finding funding to address overcrowding and understaffing at the county jail. Without additional funding for his department, Sheriff Dave Bateman said, he will be unable to run what he calls a "constitutional jail."

Morris said the commission also will be busy this year working to clean up county air.

"I think it's critical. It definitely will be an issue this year," he said.

People living in the county's unincorporated areas can soon expect some zoning changes as a result of zoning reviews and studies, Morris added. "What zoning was good 10 years ago is not good today."

Finally, Morris said, he will push for development of a county policies and procedures manual he hopes will improve administrative efficiency and risk management procedures.

1989 priorities

New Utah County Commission Chairman Brent Morris says top issues facing the county include: - Water rights and developing water resources, including establishing a Utah Lake authority.

- Funding problems resulting from the Timp Mental Health scandal.

- Overcrowding and understaffing at the county jail.

- Cleaning up county air.