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$25 million flood loan in the works for Dixie

State leaders promise low-interest assistance within the month

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A $25 million low-interest loan to help stabilize Washington County's deadly flood-swollen rivers should be on its way within the month, state leaders promised Wednesday.

The loan is part of a package of aid to the devastated region announced by Legislative leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. that also includes access to the state's $6 million revolving loan fund to pay for damaged water, irrigation and sewer lines.

Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said he was relieved to hear help is on its way.

"This will be a big help to get us off and rolling. This means something's going to be available immediately to help with the expenses we've already got," said Gardner. "We were hoping for a zero-percent interest loan, but it sounds like we aren't going to get that. We are just thankful to get the money. We appreciate the help."

St. George spokesman Marc Mortensen said city officials weren't invited to the news conference and are anxious to learn details of the state's financial assistance plan.

"We sense the urgency and we want to respond," the governor said. "This is not about roads and bridges. We all know that it's about people and helping them to rebuild their lives."

So far, though, the state isn't offering any help for the residents who saw their homes swept away by the floods earlier this month.

"What we can and can't do for homeowners is still under discussion. We were not prepared to announce any relief today to private property," Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said. "Part of it is a legal question. Part of it is a question of what is good policy."

Lawmakers from the region are apparently still pushing for the state to step in. House Majority Whip Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, described how his son's kindergarten teacher lost her home and everything she owned to the flood.

"We will figure out some way we can help out these individuals, but our job up here at the state is to help out with infrastructure and that's what we're going to do in the first place," Urquhart said. "There will be other parts of this plan that we're formulating."

Huntsman said a group may be formed to help raise money for flood victims through fund-raisers in Salt Lake City and other places throughout the state. He said he doesn't yet have an answer as to whether there's a way for taxpayers to help the homeowners and others who suffered losses in the flood.

Just where the money for the loan would come from — and what other budget priorities might be displaced — also hasn't been determined, Valentine said. The terms of the loan, other than that it would be low-interest, also have yet to be set.

The money could be on its way soon, Valentine said. The price tag for the damage is expected to exceed $150 million. But for the first time in years, lawmakers have a sizable surplus to spend — $237 million, plus another $370 million in new money.

Fast action is warranted, said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Salt Lake, because of the threat of more flooding once the snowpack in the mountains above the area begins to melt.

"We want to get this $25 million short-term loan to them as quickly as possible," Curtis said. "If we don't move quickly so they can address some of the repairs to the river and the stream bed, we'll have more significant flooding in the spring."

The state is still waiting for President Bush to declare the area a disaster to trigger federal assistance. Huntsman said he expects the declaration by the end of the week, which would provide an as-yet unknown amount of money from Washington. FEMA would send a response team to the state within 24 hours of a presidential declaration, the governor said.

Lawmakers may add money to the state's revolving loan fund, now at about $6 million, Valentine said, depending on how many applications for the money are made. The fund is typically tapped by local governments to finance dams and other infrastructure projects.

Also Wednesday, lawmakers announced the Utah Department of Transportation is coordinating with the federal government to repair eight bridges and several miles of damaged roads. Local communities may have to contribute to the financing of those projects.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, nperkins@desnews.com