A bill to lend the Washington County Water Conservancy District $4 million to pay claims from the Jan. 1 Quail Creek dike disaster won preliminary approval in the Utah Senate Thursday, but not without searching questions.
The issue seemed to be splitting along party lines, with Democrats raising potential objections and Republicans stressing the need for a quick settlement of the claims. In the end, it passed the second reading by 21 to 0.The district's insurance company has already paid out all of the $1 million covered in its policy on damage that is expected to reach $12 million from the flooding. The dike failure sent 25,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of reservoir water roaring across farm land, washing out bridges, flooding homes and killing livestock.
The measure, SB207, sponsored by Sen. Dixie Leavitt, R-Cedar City, is to be scaled down from a $5 million bill originally contemplated. This is just one of several measures, with a total price tag of $17 million, that are competing for funding out of a reserve of $7.9 million.
Leavitt said $71 million in grants have been awarded by the Legislature for natural-disaster floods since 1983. This measure wouldn't be in grants, but in a no-interest loan to be repaid over 12 or 15 years.
The district would use it to pay claims, avoiding expensive and lengthy litigation. Some senators likened this to the settlement of thrift depositors' suits, which cost much more after it had dragged along for months, building up legal fees.
He pointed out that the district is a political subdivision of the state of Utah. Both that subdivision and the state could be liable anyway, he said.
District manager Ronald Thompson told the senators the insurance policy covered "mostly apartment claims," leaving expensive claims for farming operations and large homes that were flooded.
Paying for the disaster, through legal suits, was a main topic.
Sen. Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, asked, "Mr. Thompson, who has the responsibility for pursuing the people who made the mistakes that created the problem?"
Thompson said that responsibility is the district's. "Our intent is to aggressively pursue, as soon as the reports are out, the people we think have responsibility." He said he believes there will be five or six defendants.
Farley said reports have been circulated about warnings given that the dike was to be built in a geologically bad location. "It's easy to be a Sunday morning quarterback," Thompson responded.
He said that since the disaster, he has seen many memos "all of a sudden surface from files, that never got circulated." The problem wasn't only gypsum in the soil, he said.
Sen. Karl Swan, D-Tooele, said perhaps the district should raise its mill levy by one mill to pay off the loan quicker, instead of the half-mill increase contemplated.
It's the best policy to settle claims quickly, said Sen. Craig A. Peterson, R-Utah County. Utahns should remember people have been seriously damaged by the disaster, he said.