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Wendover gets left on funding tarmac

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The cavalry didn't arrive on time. Elway failed to connect for the game-winning touchdown. The governor never stayed the execution.

And in the waning hours of the 1998 Utah Legislature, lawmakers decided not to scrape together $3 million to help save the small city of Wendover, Utah, from financial oblivion.Wendover Mayor Kent Peterson was still scratching his head in frustration and bewilderment late Wednesday night.

He was wondering why a Legislature that approved a $6.4 billion-plus budget earlier in the day had left his community strapped to the fiscal railroad tracks in front of the onrushing Bankruptcy Express.

Without the hoped-for $3 million appropriation, the city can't leverage a $2.5 million loan to finish an $8.8 million upgrade of the Wendover Airport runway.

City officials say the runway will have to be finished to pay off the $8.8 million and avoid a lawsuit by the project contractor that could render Wendover insolvent and force it to disincorporate.

"This is a devastating setback," said Peterson. "It's just a political game up there . . . and I'm really disappointed in the governor and the Legislature.

"If the state doesn't have any more compassion for Wendover than that, then we'll have to back up and take care of ourselves," he said. "I'm not sure what we'll do, but we're not willing to give up.

"This little community has survived for years," the mayor added. "Now we will have to find other avenues to pursue."

Wendover's hopes for a legislative helping hand were dashed Wednesday morning when Sen. George Mantes, D-Tooele, tried unsuccessfully to amend an existing bill to raise the $3 million.

Mantes wanted to increase the state's per-gallon aviation fuel tax from 4 cents to 6 cents for one year and use the excess 2 cents to finish off the runway.

That would have generated about $2.2 million, he said.

But on the final day of the 45-day legislative session, the Senate would have nothing of it.

A handful of senators, including other Democrats, spoke in opposition to Mantes' request. In fact, so much criticism was heaped onto the amendment, it was almost comical. Even Mantes had to smile in embarrassment at the overwhelming odds his suggestion faced.

Sen. Eddie Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the per-gallon aviation fuel cost is already higher here than in other states. If raised by 2 cents, he noted, major carriers like Delta Air Lines might cancel certain flights.

The lawmaker estimated that up to 16 flights out of Salt Lake International Airport could be lost if the amendment passed.

Sen. Robert Steiner, D-Salt Lake City, said bailing out Wendover would send the wrong message to Utah's municipalities.

"It would mean that all local groups could take irresponsible, risky steps and expect the state to be there to back them up," Steiner said during floor debate.

But Peterson said those kinds of allegations get his dander up.

Especially from a body, he said, that has been willing to dump a million bucks into the pork barrel here and there to pay for pet lawmaker projects like golf courses.

The mayor contends city officials did act responsibly in moving to invest in a thriving airport operation that was providing 40 percent of Wendover's income about 18 months ago.

How could the city foresee the carrier that had been running the "fly" air charter program would suddenly lose its federal certification? he wondered.

"This city has tried to do the very best it could by its citizenry," Peterson said. "At least our commissioners still support us. We'll work something out."

In the end, the amendment was overwhelmingly rejected on a voice vote, and Mantes said there was nothing more he could do.

"Wendover is down the toilet," he said in disgust.

Earlier, the senator had lobbied the governor's office for support. He felt legislative leadership would have supported his amendment, or some other attempt to raise money for Wendover, if Leavitt had offered his approval.

Mantes said the governor's office did, however, indicate the state might be able to provide some economic development initiatives for Wendover.

Specifically, Mantes said, a 500-bed minimum security prison was mentioned.

Tooele County commissioners were out of the state attending the annual National Association of Counties convention and were not available for comment.