SALT LAKE CITY — An undercurrent of frustrations from some elected officials in southwest Salt Lake County has spurred a Utah lawmaker to sponsor a bill that could lead to a fragmentation of Utah's densest county.
There's been no formal call from councils and mayors from cities including Herriman, Riverton, West Jordan and Copperton, but a handful of elected leaders from those communities have had talks with Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, expressing interest in exploring their options if they were to ever want a "divorce" from Salt Lake County.
The byproduct of those talks is HB93, a bill that would allow communities to break off and form their own county with a vote in their cities — without requiring a majority vote from the county they'd leave behind.
Salt Lake County leaders say the bill is "unrealistic and fiscally irresponsible," but Coleman and some west-side local leaders see it as a way to help communities better control their own destinies and to create a new option to take back power from a government that has perhaps "grown too big for its britches."
While the bill was spurred by Salt Lake County talks, some leaders in San Juan County have begun eyeing the bill after last year's election when the County Commission saw its first Native American leaders elected, even though Navajos slightly outnumber white populations in the county. A judge realigned the commission's district lines after finding gerrymandering favored white residents.
"Generally people like the notion of self-direction as well as representation," Coleman told the Deseret News on Tuesday. "I'm hearing lots of different reasons but it boils down to wanting to have a county that's more responsive to what that community wants and needs."
The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle when it was approved out of the House Government Operations Committee earlier this month, but it's currently being held in the House, awaiting changes Coleman said will address some critics' concerns.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, however, said she expects the bill to fail.
"Splitting the county is an unrealistic and fiscally irresponsible proposal that we expect to be rejected by the Legislature," the newly elected mayor said.
"Discussions regarding splitting Salt Lake County seem to be limited and aren’t reflective of the quality regional services Salt Lake County provides to its partner cities and communities," Wilson said. "Nonetheless, our door is always open to explore ways we can strengthen partnerships and collaborations."
Copperton Metro Township Councilman Apollo Pazell said general frustrations with Salt Lake County government and its treatment of west-side communities led to the informal push for Coleman's bill.
"We started to talk about the possibility of getting a little more autonomy, a (government) a little more tailor-made for our needs," Pazell said. "That discussion started to lead to the possibility of splitting the county."
He said many issues have added to discontent with Salt Lake County, including frustrations over how money for transportation or other projects has been distributed — seemingly to favor the east side — but the proposed Olympia Hills high-density project near Herriman and the transportation sales tax approved last year have been the final straws.
"It was a very short fuse to begin with," Pazell said.
Herriman residents were outraged when the Salt Lake County Council last year approved the 930-acre, 8,800-unit Olympia Hills development, leading former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to veto the project. Some west-side local leaders also opposed a $58 million sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects, but the county enacted the tax after enough city councils — mostly on the east side — voted to support it.
Herriman City Councilwoman Sherrie Ohrn urged lawmakers to support the bill in the House committee earlier this month. She told the Deseret News on Wednesday that indeed frustrations with Salt Lake County over Olympia Hills and the transportation sales tax hike have led some Herriman leaders to explore a "divorce" from Salt Lake County, but the City Council hasn't taken an official position on it.
But similar to any "divorce," Ohrn said she hopes the county will give her community the option to participate in talks over future issues, including what's next for the previously vetoed Olympia Hills project.
Ohrn said she's supportive of Coleman's bill because she believes state law as currently written is flawed and doesn't allow communities to control their own destinies when it comes to county government. She said she wants to preserve a possible county split as an option — if Herriman residents ever want it in the future.
"I believe in liberty, and anytime there are laws written that take away liberty, I think those need to be addressed," Ohrn said.
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs and West Jordan City Councilman Zach Jacob also said they've been "interested" in and "intrigued" by Coleman's bill, but both noted their respective councils haven't taken a formal position on the bill, either. However, both leaders say they're intrigued by the idea of preserving the option of a county split if voters ever wanted it.
"I think whenever any governing entity gets too big for its britches, it's time to look at that process to get it back closer to the people," Jacob said. "I'm a government-closest-to-the-people kind of guy."
The Salt Lake County Council recently voted to oppose the bill. County Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove on Tuesday called it "a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist." Allowing a segment of Salt Lake County to break off without all voters within the county being able to weigh in would be "un-American," he said. He also raised concerns about what such a split would do to the county's finances and its AAA bond rating.
"It's an action that affects everyone in Salt Lake County, but only a few people get to vote on it?" Snelgrove said. "That's an un-American approach."15 comments on this story
But Coleman argues just the opposite. She said her bill will fix an area of state code that is "antithetical to self-direction of communities."
Some lawmakers in the Senate committee, however, raised concerns about allowing a split to happen without first requiring a feasibility study to ensure both the communities' break off and the remaining county would be able to survive the split. Coleman said she plans to propose an amendment to include "assurances" for that feasibility study to happen before it goes the ballot.
The bill currently awaits action in the House.