Secrecy cloaked three crucial meetings Thursday at the Provo City Center.
The first began at 7:30 a.m., when Mayor Lewis Billings and members of his staff met behind closed doors with three members of the City Council. About an hour later, a second session followed with the other three council members who were in town.
If a fourth council member had been present, Utah law would have required the meeting be opened to the public and media.
In between the smaller gatherings, the mayor met with the full council in an executive session, which by law is closed to the public.
Why all the clandestine maneuvering?
The answer is wrapped inside what for more than four years has been the city's biggest political football.
On one hand, iProvo is an impressive success. Initially projected to break even at 10,000 subscribers, the city-owned system now provides digital TV, telephone and Internet service to 10,475 homes.
That's nearly one-third of the entire city.
The Internet service is much faster than what Comcast and Qwest can provide, and iProvo services generally cost less, though its competitors frequently offer three-, six- and 12-month introductory packages at prices below iProvo. After the time period is up, their rates rise above iProvo's.
On the other hand, iProvo continues to pile up debts. The project was sold to the City Council under the premise that iProvo would make money to augment city funds, not drain them.
Losses for this year are on pace to reach $1.8 million, 50 percent higher than projected. That would bring the project's total losses to $4.88 million.
Meanwhile, one of the companies providing services over iProvo fell behind in its monthly payments to the city. The State Auditor's Office is investigating.
The closed meetings were a page from the Billings playbook, a crystal-clear sign that city leaders were running with the political pigskin. Was Provo preparing to punt on iProvo?
Yes. Expect a major shift between now and July, either a sale or a vast retooling that stems the red ink on the city's books.
In December, iProvo manager Kevin Garlick announced the city had hired two consultant firms and promised their reports would be "early Christmas presents." In January he said the reports were 90 percent complete.
Now three months on, the reports still aren't done or available to the public or even the City Council.
The reason, Billings confirmed Friday, is that based on information in the initial drafts of the reports, the city asked the consultants to refocus on specific alternatives.
The city is considering four tracks, one of which is, obviously, to sell iProvo. Billings maintained he always has been open to privatization but that, although the city has had offers, none convinced him they would work in the long term.
Provo has been burned when it has privatized other city services, such as the golf course.
Council members have defended votes to subsidize iProvo by saying the money has come from unexpected sales-tax surpluses collected in the recent economic boom times.
Now the boom is receding, and $4.88 million would have gone a long way to building a new recreation center or toward other needs in the city.
The City Council clearly is weary of the subsidies, but even its biggest iProvo critics appeared mollified after the private meetings, a sign that a solution is near."The consultant reports will allow us to say, 'We're here,"' Billings said. "Now do we want to go down this offramp or that offramp, or stay where we are and wait for other options to appear?"
Tad Walch lives with his wife and five children in Provo, their home for the past 21 years. Please e-mail [email protected]