SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative task force got closer Monday to coming up with a new way to run the Utah Transit Authority, although concerns were raised that replacing the board and top boss would give the state too much power.
"I'm sorry to be so blunt. To me, it seems to be, 'This is a way we can get control of UTA,'" said Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie, a member of the Legislature's Transportation and Governance Task Force.
Beattie said the shift from UTA's current 16-member board of trustees selected largely by local leaders to a three-member commission appointed by the governor overseeing day-to-day operations would take away local authority.
The move is intended to also eliminate the position of president and CEO at the transit agency, a post currently held by Jerry Benson, and possibly other top administrative spots.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the proposed restructuring of UTA seems to be "pulling district authority into state government authority. That doesn't feel right."
By the end of the two-hour meeting, however, the task force had decided to back the concept of the proposed change after several members successfully pushed for more opportunities to further air their concerns.
Monday's meeting had been expected to be the last for the task force, but now there will be at least one more before the 2018 Utah Legislature starts in late January, so a bill already being drafted can be reviewed.
The co-chairmen of the task force, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, pushed back against the suggestion that the state is overstepping with the proposal made public for the first time at the meeting.
"I want to step in for just a minute and just talk about realities. This is not a takeover by the state," Schultz said. But he added there isn't legislative support for opening up state transportation funds to UTA without some control.
"I think they ought to have a say on where and how those dollars are spent," he said, calling the proposed governance model a "good compromise" compared to earlier proposals that called for UTA to be absorbed into state government.
Harper said establishing a transit commission "is backing off significantly from that position." He said the latest proposal, which would include a nine-member advisory board, would help "enhance the transparency, the trust and the confidence" in UTA.
The agency has been the subject of critical legislative audits over the years for a number of issues, including excessive executive bonuses and questionable development deals made at transit stops.
Earlier this year, UTA signed a nonprosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office in an ongoing federal probe related to transit development that requires up to three years of federal monitoring.
With some $2 billion in debt, UTA needs a new source of revenue to expand. Distrust in the agency has been blamed for voters in Salt Lake and other counties rejecting a sales tax increase for transportation known as Prop 1 two years ago.
Schultz said not only does UTA have "zero dollars" available for expansion, there could have to be cutbacks in service if revenue estimates fall short in the coming years because of hefty debt payments.
Future bonds issued by UTA would have to go before the State Bonding Commission for approval under the proposal, which also puts the agency under the Utah Retirement Systems.
The transit commission described Monday would be selected from three nominees advanced to the governor from the counties serviced by UTA and would require final approval by the state Senate.
Each of the three commissioners would be over a specific area — administrative, operations and maintenance or finance — and would be assisted by a hired auditor and general counsel. Regular reports to the Legislature would be required.
"The buck stops with those three people," Schultz said, unlike the current system that includes UTA's top administrators as well as the 16 trustees serving on the board.
But Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn, who serves on the UTA board, questioned whether the proposal would be "adding another layer of executive management to the organization or is it truly an oversight capacity?"
Millburn said UTA has made the needed "course corrections" as a result of issues that have surfaced in the past and suggested the state should be focused on "transportation as a whole and not just on one entity."
UTA officials in the audience, including Benson, did not offer testimony during the meeting.
Afterward, Matt Sibul, UTA government relations director, told reporters the agency needs time to study the proposal.
"Just like everyone else, we were given these details this morning, so we want a chance to digest it and learn more and ask a lot of questions and understand how it would actually function," he said.3 comments on this story
The task force "took the right approach in their focus on how we can make governance better at UTA," Sibul said, adding that "everyone agrees" that access to state transportation dollars will mean additional oversight.
"They're looking for ways to expand public transit and potentially invest state money in it and so they want to figure out the right level of oversight and accountability," he said. "We want to work with them to find out how that would function the best."