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UTAHNS MAY NOT GET BACK ALL OF $59 MILLION

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Utah taxpayers may not get back all of the $59 million they've invested in Olympic facilities despite promises from backers of Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

The agreement to sell the facilities to the privately funded bid committee, if Salt Lake City gets the Games, calls for state and local governments to be repaid as well as the establishment of a $40 million sports foundation.All along, bid backers have pledged to return the $59 million being collected over 10 years as a result of passage of the 1989 Olympic referendum if Salt Lake City is selected to host the Winter Games.

But Gov. Mike Leavitt told local government leaders last week that state and local governments are going to have to pick up the tab if the Olympics lose money.

Under the governor's plan, any debt from hosting the Winter Games would be made up from the $59 million in sales taxes collected from both the state and local governments over 10 years.

The $40 million the agreement sets aside for the private, nonprofit sports foundation wouldn't be tapped unless the $59 million wasn't enough to pay the debt.

"It falls on the taxpayers anyway. It's just a question of how you handle it," the governor's chief of staff, Charlie Johnson, said Wednesday. He said that an agreement protecting Salt Lake City from any losses signed by former Gov. Norm Bangerter shifts responsibility for debt to the state.

The reason debts would be repaid from the $59 million first is to make sure there's enough money available to operate and maintain the Olympic facilities without going back to taxpayers for financial help.

Those facilities, which include the Utah Winter Sports Park near Park City, will be owned by Olympic organizers and operated through a private foundation funded with the $40 million.

The plan outlined by the governor to Utah League of Cities and Town Board is a "worst-case scenario," Johnson said, that government leaders will attempt to avoid at all cost.

"We're not going to throw a bigger party than we can afford," he said. The governor has budget approval, even though the Winter Games would be put on by the privately funded Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee acting as the Olympic Organizing Committee.

The board has agreed the $59 million should be held for six months after the 2002 Winter Games are held to indemnify the state against any losses. In exchange for waiting for their half of the money, the 228 municipal governments want half of any interest earned on the money.

Jim Jardine, the bid committee's legal counsel, said the plan originated with the governor. Jardine said under the facilities sales agreement, the $59 million will be returned to state and local governments - and what they do with it is up to them.

"The promise was never that taxpayers would get their money back. The promise was that the money would be repaid to the cities and the state," Jardine said. He said the state has no legal liability to pay Olympic debts, only a moral obligation.