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UTAH’S CITY INCORPORATION LAW RESEMBLES MIDNIGHT MADNESS

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While most people bake in the sun this summer, wondering how to vote on the Miss America swimsuit issue, a committee of local and state officials is busy trying to change the way unincorporated areas become cities in Utah.

That hardly seems worthy of diverting your attention, but it is a big issue - particularly in Salt Lake County, which is slowly working its way toward becoming a wall-to-wall patchwork of cities.So far, the committee's efforts are making two things clear.

The first is that the state Legislature should pick a time other than midnight to adjourn its yearly sessions. If it ended at, say 3 p.m., when people still are awake and thinking clearly, the chances of passing silly laws like the one that currently regulates incorporations would be diminished.

I'm not entirely sure this was a midnight law when it passed more than a decade ago, but it has that ring to it. It's a logician's nightmare - the legal equivalent of the chicken-and-egg argument. Simply put, it says counties may reject incorporation elections, with the exception that they may not reject them.

Salt Lake County recently turned down an incorporation attempt by a handful of people in The Cottonwoods neighborhood, relying on the first part of the law. The people then sued the county, citing the second part of the law. The Utah Supreme Court now has the unenviable job of trying to determine what the lawmakers intended when they created this two-headed animal.

That's easy. They intended to hurry and finish before the midnight deadline.

The second thing becoming clear is that counties soon are going to lose the power to decide whether incorporation elections are held. That's a good thing.

To most incorporation efforts, counties are the bogeymen. Particularly in Salt Lake County, city organizers view anything the county does with skepticism because it acts as a city to the 300,000 or so people who live in unincorporated areas.

That makes county government a competing interest. After all, who would want a city to decide whether to strap its own budget by allowing another city to form within its own boundaries?

Actually, the county has a legitimate interest in incorporation drives. It has to look out for the welfare of the folks left behind in unincorporated areas. As long as the county is able to continue providing services without any change in taxes for those folks, it should have no problem approving an incorporation election.

That was the trouble with The Cottonwoods. Organizers there would create a city of about 6,800 residents and would include as its major tax generator the Cottonwood Mall. A feasibility study showed the new city would significantly raise costs for the county while creating a comfortable situation for its own residents. Not a bad deal if you can get away with it.

Of course, the county commissioned the feasibility study, which automatically makes it suspect in the minds of some. Still, The Cottonwoods is an example of the dangers behind a system skewed in favor of incorporation efforts.

Doubtless, lots of little areas along the Wasatch Front would like to incorporate around a major tax generator. But pity the few neighborhoods that are left unincorporated once that land-grab has run its course. Whatever solution the state finds to the incorporation process must include protections against such municipal Darwinism.

And a lot of potential solutions are floating around these days. The committee, made up of interested parties including the county, is toying with the idea of an incorporation commission comprising representatives from the county, some cities and the incorporation drive itself.

They should add incorporation opponents to that mix, as well. They have as much interest in the outcome as the proponents.

Lost among much of this discussion is the fact that voters have rejected every incorporation effort in the past 15 years. And some say the only reason West Valley City succeeded in 1980 was that people were skeptical and suspicious of the county.

But four incorporation drives currently are under way, and the public seems once again to be skeptical of the county - and all governments, for that matter. Efforts to change incorporation laws eventually may affect everyone along the Wasatch Front.