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LAWS ON INCORPORATION DRIVES NEED SOME SERIOUS ADJUSTING

A lot of people are feeling angry, betrayed and frustrated these days in the Cottonwood area of unincorporated Salt Lake County.

It's hard to blame them. They spent months gathering signatures on petitions, trying to get an election to incorporate as a city, only to be denied by the County Commission.You'll recall, these are the same people who so far have had to bear the brunt of the current real-estate boom. Two years ago, county assessors came to the area and found that values had inflated enough to win a balloon race in Park City. The results were tax bills that for many people increased several times over.

After that, the assessor refused to do any more assessing or, for that matter, to run for re-election. That left Cottonwood with a disproportionate share of the county's tax burden, and it left a lot of people burning to make their own city and control their own bills.

And now this.

Trisha Topham, one of the incorporation organizers, said her group is talking to attorneys to see what the next step will be. "We're not just going to roll over and let them do this," she said.

Actually, the Cottonwoods incorporation drive has put the county in a difficult situation. And thanks to a state law that raises doublespeak to an art form, no one knows what the outcome will be if this fight lands in court.

The case of The Cottonwoods could set the tone for the rest of the county as unincorporated pockets try to form cities to protect themselves.

The concern is that the wealthiest areas of the county will band together to form wealthy cities, leaving poorer neighborhoods for someone else to worry about. Wealth is defined not so much by the incomes of the residents as it is by the tax-generating businesses that happen to be in the neighborhood.

In the case of The Cottonwoods, that tax generator is the Cottonwood Mall, and it is giving county commissioners plenty of reason to worry. The incorporation drive includes an area with a population of only about 6,800 - not very many people to reap the benefits of a mall.

As it is now, the county collects sales taxes that amount to about $38 for every person who lives in unincorporated areas. If The Cottonwoods incorporates, taking the mall with it, its sales tax collections would amount to $129 for each of the 6,800 people. Meanwhile, the county would take a big hit, losing 5 percent of its overall revenue.

That may give others in unincorporated areas near big businesses ideas, and the county would be powerless to stop them.

Technically, a group of only 1,000 people living in a wealthy neighborhood around another mall or big business could form a city. Then they could pave the streets with gold, erect platinum street lights and put a police officer in front of every house.

In other words, The Cottonwoods could start a gold grab to make California in 1849 seem like a discount sale at a thrift shop. The folks who robbed Tiffany's would move to the Wasatch Front and get into the incorporation business, and they wouldn't even have to worry about tripping any alarms. Before long, 50 little cities, with 50 little police and fire departments, would fill the valley. And a lot of little neighborhoods without big businesses would be left with hefty bills for the county's police and fire services.

The county claims The Cottonwoods can survive nicely without a mall. Commissioners would have redrawn the boundaries, but state law would have allowed incorporation supporters to veto that and force a vote by collecting only 500 signatures.

And that brings us to the subject of state laws. The one governing incorporation drives needs some serious work. It explains in detail all the reasons under which counties can reject incorporations drives, noting that if any of these reasons exist, "the county . . . shall issue a written order refusing to hold an election."

Later, in the very same paragraph, it says, "Notwithstanding . . . the county legislative body must proceed with the election unless a majority of the petitioners withdraw their signatures in writing."

The best solution for the future of Salt Lake County's unincorporated areas would be for state lawmakers to divide things fairly so that poor neighborhoods aren't left out. But judging by the way lawmakers write incorporation laws, that isn't likely to happen.