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S.L. COUNTY PROPOSES A PANEL TO REVIEW INCORPORATION BIDS

Salt Lake County has drafted a bill that amends the state's incorporation law to create a commission to review proposals for new cities and to broaden criteria for denying petitions of city status.

But odds that the county will get the Utah Legislature to consider the bill during its April 19 special session are "in the real slim category," according to the governor's office.County Commission Chairman Brent Overson unveiled a copy of the bill Wednesday at a Council of Governments meeting, where valley mayors gave its general concepts unanimous support but stopped short of formally endorsing it.

County staff have made at least one contact with the governor's office to see if the bill could be added to the special session agenda. On Thursday, an aide told the Deseret News it probably "won't happen".

"We're really going to limit the call of the special session and introduction of other issues would be inappropriate in a special session," said Charlie Johnson, Gov. Mike Leavitt's chief of staff.

That may be just as well considering some concerns the draft bill has generated since it was floated in public.

Overson said the bill attempts to "clarify problems that have popped up" in recent months as incorporation drives have swept the county. The problems triggered by incorporation drives in four parts of the county - The Cottonwoods, Taylorsville-Bennion, Magna and Kearns - are of two general types: erosion of the county's tax base and overlapping boundaries.

The first part of the bill, which is structured to apply only to Salt Lake County, is generating little controversy. It establishes a nine-member review committee to deal with incorporation requests.

The commission - made up of county and city officials and members of the public - would usurp all of the County Commission's current responsibilities for incorporations, including ordering a feasibility study, holding public hearings, adjusting boundaries and setting incorporation elections. The commission would take over any incorporations now proposed that have not yet begun a feasibility study; that means the County Commission would continue to oversee The Cottonwoods and Taylorsville-Bennion petitions.

The commission will provide a "cleaner," "more impartial" body to handle incorporation requests, dropping the County Commission and its perceived biases out of the process, Overson said.

Local mayors, who plan to review the proposal again Thursday during the Utah League of Cities and Towns' conference in St. George, support creation of a nine-member incorporation review commission. So do several proponents of incorporation drives now under way in Salt Lake Valley who have seen the bill.

Another amendment to the law likely to be noncontroversial clarifies that a petition is not official until the county clerk receives the required number of valid signatures.

But there is less enthusiasm for changes that elaborate on reasons an incorporation petition can be denied, which center on financial impact on the county.

In addition to proposals that are judged "substantially detrimental" to the structure of local county government, petitions could be denied if they would be:

- Harmful to the efficient provision of government services.

- Disproportionately harmful to the fair distribution of revenues.

- Contrary to the appropriate development of the entire county urban or suburban community.

- Discriminatorily affect county residents on the basis of social, ethnic or similar classifications.

Overson says the new language would prevent future incorporation proposals from drawing boundaries around "revenue plums" unless they were balanced by service-dependent residential areas.

Incorporation proponents - several of whom told the Deseret News they were unhappy the county didn't seek input from them on the proposal - and some mayors are alarmed at the broader criteria for turning down proposed cities.

"What are you supposed to do if you don't have the right mix?" asks Trisha Topham, co-chairwoman of Neighbors for The Cottonwoods, referring to the discrimination clause. "That just seems like it just lets a lot of decision making be made on ambiguous grounds."

South Salt Lake Mayor Randy Fitts said preventing "little cities forming around each mall" and thus blocking the ability of other areas to incorporate may be appropriate.

"We (the mayors) want to see the Salt Lake Valley go to wall-to-wall cities and we want to make sure the cities that form have a strong tax base so they are able to do things they want to do as a city," he said. "We have some concern that some of them won't be able to do that."

But Fitts needs more explanation about how the county expects the commission to determine other provisions, including what constitutes a "fair distribution of revenue" or when an incorporation is discriminatory.

"What does that mean? If it has too many unemployed people, it can't be a city? If it has too many white people, it can't be a city?" Fitts said. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered."

The Cottonwoods proponents see another purpose of the bill: an attempt to head off a Supreme Court showdown over the county's decision to not hold an election on their petition for city status. The bill strikes language that guarantees an election on an incorporation petition, even if creation of a new city would be detrimental to county government - something Overson tried to do with a bill floated during the last session of the Legislature, said Tom Nelson, co-chairman of Neighbors for The Cottonwoods.

Why else would the county want a bill that "only lasts a year and doesn't apply to incorporations already in progress?" Nelson asks. "They're doing everything in their power to try to get that notwithstanding clause out because they think it will affect the Supreme Court decision."