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Holladay Journal

Advisory committee urges big action to update city infrastructure

Jun 01, 2020 10:38AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Over 36% of Holladay’s public roads are in “poor” or “very poor” condition, according to a citywide inventory using the standardized Pavement Condition Index Rating (PCI). (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The citizen advisory committee leading the [email protected] Preparing for Tomorrow initiative delivered its final report to the Holladay City Council in May, issuing a firm recommendation that the city act decisively in addressing its unfunded liabilities, which have climbed to $75 million. The committee argued that if the city fails to take action fast, the cost of infrastructure repairs will escalate, forcing the city to pay more for less down the road. 

“The report is the tale of two cities. On the one hand you have a very young city, only 20 years old with a lot of new homes, and we refer to it as a teenager,” said vice chair of the citizen advisory committee John Norton. “But when you look at the stormwater systems and roads, I’m calling it the senior citizen. That summarizes the dilemma we’re dealing with serious challenges.”

The committee’s findings present a challenge for city leaders, who now face the unenviable task of convincing residents to pony up for needed projects at a time when economic outlooks are grim amidst a national downturn “significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. 

But in the eyes of the committee, the math doesn’t change. “Roads don’t respond to viruses, and if we let that infrastructure fail it’s going to cost us more in the long run,” Norton said.

The biggest liabilities according to the report are the city’s roads, sidewalks and bridges, with an estimated outlay of $40.5 million. This comes as little surprise to residents whose frustration with roadways are amply captured in the community priority survey. Over 36% of Holladay’s public roads are in “poor” or “very poor” condition, according to a citywide inventory using the standardized Pavement Condition Index Rating (PCI). The cost of repair will grow by multiples if conditions dilapidate further, according to the report.

The second biggest liability is the storm water system, whose updates are estimated to cost $18 million. “You don’t get the public’s attention any quicker when you have a 100-year storm event and homes get destroyed. It’s these types of big unexpected expenses that put a drain on the budget. These systems have big impacts to the public health. So we have a responsibility,” explained John Ashton, chair of the advisory committee.

Holladay resident Bud Smith, who served as the chair of the condominium community Carriage Lane, strongly supports storm water improvements. 

“We suffered a lot of property damage in Carriage Lane from big rain floods. The water poured into grounds from three separate places. I think it’s good the city is taking this issue seriously.” Smith worked with city, county and state officials in a split investment to create an adequate drain water system.

Now the committee is proposing a $6 flat rate fee to fund improvements. Though some raised issue with the flat approach. “I’m very concerned about the regressive nature of this fee,” said Paul Fotheringham, arguing that a fee system should take into account difference in property size.

Other unmet needs identified in the report include trail systems, information technology, property maintenance, public safety and public works. 

The committee contracted with the firm Lewis Young Robertson & Burningham to create a Financial Sustainability Model that offers the city three different revenue plan options, all of which require the city to levy new property taxes. The options are named Treading Water, Slightly Better and Biggest Impact.

“The committee is strongly recommending the Biggest Impact because that’s where we get the most bang for our buck. Citizens will notice a marked improvement in road conditions and we’ll fair better [financially] in the long run,” Norton said.

The Biggest Impact, however, comes with the biggest price tag, requiring tax levy by 92% city property tax hike, which would lift the overall homeowner property tax by about 9%, because the city is just one of multiple entities who collect property tax from Holladay homeowners.

“If we’d have kept abreast of the needs of the city and inflation then we wouldn’t need to make such a big jump. We haven’t raised property taxes in 20 years. But if you compare our proposed increase with adjacent cities [like Millcreek and Cottonwood Heights], we’d still not have the highest rate,” Ashton said. “If we defer and ignore these problems, even with COVID-19 or a recession, things are not going to get better, which is why we recommend the Biggest Impact and ask the city to consider that in an expeditious way.”

The committee’s presentation was powerful, and the council conceded the need for bold action. Yet there was a palpable trepidation about how to move forward because, as any experienced council knows, imposing new taxes is no walk in the park. 

“If you go with Treading Water or you go with the Biggest Impact your going to get disgruntlement because it’s going to hit a lot of our citizens hard,” said councilwoman Sabrina Petersen, the council’s longest serving member. “I’ve learned that if it’s a tax increase the public is going to scream about it. This is not like ripping a Band-Aid off. This is ripping wisdom teeth out without any anesthetic.”

On top of these unmet needs, the city faces other financial challenges related to growing expenses from inflation in cost for contract services along with a projected revenue sag from the anticipated loss of sales tax resulting from COVID-19.

“We’re going to get a double whammy. We can slice and dice a little, but if we don’t make some changes [to the revenue model] we’re going to be balancing our budget with savings and that’s not a good place to be in,” said Mayor Robert Dahle.

Councilmember Dan Gibbons expressed the most reservation about moving forward with the Biggest Impact.

“I’m pretty ambivalent about moving forward considering the tight schedule we’re needing to follow. I think voters are shell-shocked by COVID, and I don’t think we know what the full impact of that is going to be,” Gibbons said. He floated the idea of a third survey, to see if “citizens were of the mind that we just want to tread water.” 

But that idea was unpopular with the remainder of the council, who argued another survey would not be performed until the coronavirus upheaval settled, pushing the process off another year or more. They expressed confidence that the [email protected] process was sufficiently thorough and recapitulated the advisory committee’s admonition to urgency.

“I’m in favor of going forward because we’re going to get hit regardless of how we act, which puts more pressure on us to maintain or build up some additional revenue stream. This [COVID crisis] is a new reality. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for 20 years,” Fotheringham said. 

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and we needed to do this 10 years ago,” said Petersen, who concluded the meeting with a sober call for foresight. “If we’re going to be a responsible council, we need to be thinking about the next 10, 15, 20 years.”