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Planetarium funding is questioned

The decision Tuesday to move ahead with the construction of a new Hansen Planetarium at the Gateway development was crafted with compromise and didn't come without a lot of misgivings from the majority of the Salt Lake County Council.

At the outset, even though the Gateway proposal eventually won a majority endorsement, County Council member Joe Hatch wanted the mechanics of its funding rejected altogether.

Hatch offered a motion to refuse to allow the institution's operational budget of $1.4 million to be turned over to capital improvements for construction of the planetarium at Gateway.

Central to bonding for Gateway is earmarking those operational funds to pay back the bond, leaving many to question where the planetarium folks are going to dig up money to run the institution.

Simply put, Hatch wanted a yes or no vote on Gateway.

His motion failed 4-5, with Hatch, Steve Harmsen, Jim Bradley and Marv Hendrickson voting in vain to kill the Gateway proposal.

Gateway was Hatch's third preference in the debate over where to locate the 36-year-old institution. The Democrat favored pairing the institution with the University of Utah's Natural History Museum at Research Park.

"When coupled with the Natural History Museum, the mission of the planetarium is better preserved," he said. "I was horrified when I heard the idea of an inflatable gorilla on top of the planetarium, but I was equally horrified when I heard we don't want women with shopping bags to come through the doors. I don't want that snobbery of education to be part of the planetarium."

When the Gateway victory was clear, it was County Council member Randy Horiuchi who proposed the bonding plan of $15 million for Salt Lake County.

Another $10 million bonding plan was thrown in for the Children's Museum, on the condition voters approve it.

Hatch then tinkered with the motion, asking that the management contract handed over to the Children's Museum be limited to two years from when the doors open and a cap be set on Zoo, Arts and Parks funding at $200,000 a year. It passed 7-2, with County Council members Bradley and Hendrickson remaining as steadfast holdouts against the Gateway plan.

Afterward, Hatch he said it was a package he could live with as long as the long-term health of the institution could be assured. "This minimizes some of the risks at Gateway. It doesn't eliminate them, but I can live with it being there."

The limitation on funding will force both institutions to turn to alternative sources of revenue other than county coffers, and if management falls short of the planetarium's goals, it can be rescinded, he said.

Three of the County Council members who voted in favor of Gateway did so with the caveat they can withdraw their support in the coming weeks if the numbers put forth by the Children's Museum don't pass muster. Council members Harmsen, Russell Skousen and Michael Jensen want proponents to do the math, and prove their calculations will be successful.

That was frustrating to Bradley, who said that misgivings should have been settled long ago. "All the questions relevant to the vote should have been answered before this," Bradley said in a discussion later with Skousen.

Bradley, who opposed Gateway from the beginning, vented afterward. "I find it absolutely disconcerting that this council could commit such substantial funds to moving the planetarium to Gateway when there were clearly less expensive and more attractive alternatives," he said. "It's particularly distressing given the council is fully aware of the critical state of the county's budget. If this is a harbinger of how this Republican-controlled council is going to fritter away money, we are all in trouble. This was clearly not a good deal for the public."