Legislative leaders today accused Salt Lake County officials of violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, when the county directed sales-tax money to transit, rather than roads.
The accusations came after a legislative audit that was released this afternoon. According to the audit, a math mistake and "bias" toward transit may have forced some road projects not to be funded by a quarter-cent sales tax hike approved by voters last November.
The audit found that Salt Lake County officials used a flawed process that ranked transit higher than several road projects to decide what to fund with the tax hike. The process was flawed because of a math error, the audit said.
Using that process, county leaders selected three rail projects to be funded by the tax hike: commuter rail to Provo, and TRAX lines to West Valley and South Jordan.
The math error caused commuter rail to be ranked number two on a priority list of projects to be funded, instead of where it really belonged, at number 19, according to the audit. The TRAX projects were also ranked artificially high, the audit said.
"For those of us who invested so much time in this, I feel somewhat, personally, snookered," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, during a meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee.
The committee voted to send the audit to the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee for action at a later date.
West Valley Mayor Dennis Nordfelt, who helped select the projects to be funded, told the committee that he believed regardless of the math error, transit would have been selected over road projects such as reconstruction of 9000 South in Salt Lake County.
The audit said county leaders demonstrated a bias toward transit, and Nordfelt said that was true. But he also said officials followed the law in selecting transit over some road projects.
The law allowed for county leaders to use their own judgment in selecting projects to be funded, but only after they followed a clear-set process of picking projects that was outlined by the Legislature.
Nordfelt said it was "fair to say" that the Legislature as a whole wanted roads to receive more funding from the tax hike than they did. About one-third of the hike went to roads, he said. The rest was directed to transit.
Bruce Jones, attorney for the Utah Transit Authority, said county leaders did nothing wrong.
"I don't think the process was slanted," he said.
But Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, warned that Salt Lake County leaders could face trouble in the upcoming legislative session."In general, I would say this could significantly affect the ability of local government to come back to the Legislature," Valentine said.