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City still not a reality

2 vie to be the first mayor of Cottonwood Heights

Deseret Morning News graphic

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Suzanne Bitter and Kelvyn Cullimore Jr. are facing off in a seemingly normal mayoral campaign in this year's municipal elections.

They are both long-time residents, active in their city — the only glitch is that the city doesn't exist.

Bitter and Cullimore are not only competing to lead the city of Cottonwood Heights, they are racing to create it.

"How do you start a city? I mean, you don't even have a phone number or a pencil," said Liane Stillman, who faced the obstacles of starting a city in 1999 as the mayor of newly incorporated Holladay.

From creating a master plan to staffing city offices, the Cottonwood Heights mayor will be faced with the trials of a start-up business coupled with the charge to run a city of 34,000 residents looking to city leaders to make good on incorporation promises.

"Expectations are pretty high. They're expecting city leadership to smooth out those bumps," Cullimore said. "But start-ups are start-ups, and there will be a few rough patches."

Both mayoral candidates said they're feeling the pressure from residents to get the city up and running quickly. But time will be tight for the city's new mayor, with only a small window to get the city under way before official incorporation in January.

"If we don't do it right the first time, the ripple effect will be felt for decades," Cullimore, 48, said. "We're the ones that are going to float the boat. If we don't do it right, it's going to sink."

Cullimore and Bitter agree one of the most pressing priorities for the new mayor will be taking control of land-development decisions from Salt Lake County. Maintaining city control over zoning issues was a key reason for incorporation after a series of unpopular county decisions such as a large development at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon and the placement of several billboards along city streets.

"They didn't listen to the neighbors or anyone's opinion," Bitter, 40, said. "Now, when we say no, the buck stops here."

But with authority comes responsibility for mapping out a master plan for the city that stretches from the Holladay border on the north to the Wasatch-Cache National Forest on the east, 1300 East on the west and Creek Road to the south. Creating that plan means merging four general plans from existing community councils, a process that will demand a lot of compromise to balance commercial growth with residential quality of life, Stillman said.

Both Bitter and Cullimore support commercial growth in areas zoned for retail but are hesitant to change existing residential zones to allow more commercial.

"Every city needs commercial growth, but you have to do that wisely," Bitter said.

Along with establishing firm zoning boundaries, Cullimore said a top priority will be capturing city taxes that until now have been going to county coffers. Cottonwood Heights will be without property tax revenue for the first six months after incorporation because this year's taxes will go to the county.

But neither Cullimore nor Bitter is worried about that initial obstacle because the new city has more revenue than expenses. The candidates are also hoping to cut back on costs by contracting with the county for services like police, fire and sanitation.

Even if the city does hit financial roadblocks, neither candidate wants to raise taxes to foot city bills. The threat of another county tax hike was one of the factors that led 85 percent of Cottonwood voters to opt for incorporation in May, Cullimore said.

With tax revenues streaming in from the Cottonwood Corporate Center, Bitter said the city should be able to avoid going into debt to finance start-up costs. Both candidates are also in favor of saving where possible, including renting office space instead of building a city hall.

"If we're careful with spending, we should be OK. We may have to wait for things that are luxuries down the line," Bitter said.

Bitter, a 24-year Cottonwood Heights resident and member of the Cottonwood Community Council, said she wants residents to feel comfortable approaching her as the mayor. To promote that idea, she has been campaigning door to door since the primary election, where she garnered only 16 percent of the vote compared with Cullimore's 60 percent.

Cullimore, a 26-year resident and CEO of a medical device-manufacturing firm called Dynatronics Corp., said he sees his role as mayor as a facilitator, bringing residents together to solve problems. Cullimore said his experience leading a company with a budget twice the size of that of Cottonwood Heights has given him the expertise to kick-start the business of running a city.

County Councilman Russell Skousen said both candidates will have their share of obstacles, despite experience and expertise.

And if Holladay's incorporation days are any indication, Skousen said the candidates should not expect to stay in office very long. Stillman, for example, only served as Holladay mayor for two years, and residents later voted to change their system from a strong mayor form of government to a city council-manager structure.

"There's just so many divisive issues. It can get pretty crazy at times," Skousen said. "Hopefully they'll learn from Holladay's mistakes."