SALT LAKE CITY — Does Utah have a modern Boston Tea Party about to erupt or is there a way for the "king" to stop the revolt?
Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, and other critics of a current practice say some ratepayers of city water supply systems have no recourse at the ballot box if rates go up because they live outside the municipal boundaries.
"If I don't like my rate and if I think my rate is not fair, that may be subject to an election consequence," she said Tuesday during a joint committee meeting tasked by the Legislature to probe multiple water issues.
One of those issues includes residents who are being supplied water by a city but who live outside its municipal boundaries.
"(Residents) have no remedy at the ballot box. As a resident of Millcreek, I don't like the idea that I have no say in what the water rates will be — forever," said Paul Ashton, general manager of the White City Water Improvement District.
Ashton lives in an area of Millcreek that gets its water from Salt Lake City.
Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said a late spring survey exploring the issue received responses from 47 cities, 23 of which provide retail culinary water outside municipal boundaries.
Of those 23 cities — and more responses are expected — 17 cities assess a higher rate to nonresidents.
Diehl likened the situation to a business owner who has property in one city but lives in another, and therefore is ineligible to have representation at the ballot box.
A Utah Supreme Court decision involving the town of Torrey found that rates outside a city's boundaries must be based on a rational basis and not arbitrary, but Coleman said forcing disgruntled users to take it up with the courts is not the answer.
"I don't believe the best solution is to always leave it to the courts," he said.
The meeting also touched on the issue of surplus water contracts, an arrangement that comes from language in the Utah Constitution that prohibits a city from directly selling or leasing its water.
Because of that provision to "safeguard" a city's water supply, it may instead enter into a contract to supply water it deems surplus to another area. Those contracts, however, can be terminated at any time without any notice.
Diehl said it is a practice that extends beyond Salt Lake City, which is under scrutiny because of the water authority it exercises outside its boundaries.
"There is no city out there willy-nilly cutting off water," Diehl said.
Although abrupt termination of a water supply apparently has never happened in the state, critics say booming development in modern times changes the conversation from what it was more than 100 years ago when the Utah Constitution was amended.
"It isn't OK to let people build houses that last 60 years when there isn't a reliable water supply," said Linda Johnson, a Millcreek resident who serves on the Mountainous Planning Commission.
"This is imaginary water."
Several city representatives, however, insisted the practice allows people to leave an inferior system or often the water service is extended to where none exists.
The committees are working on wording for a possible constitutional amendment to resolve the issue of surplus water contracts. The water rate increases without representation, the Boston Tea Party, remains a debate without immediate resolution.