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Officials accused of misdirecting road funds to transit

Lawmakers say county violated the spirit of law

Legislative leaders accused Salt Lake County officials Tuesday of violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, when the county directed sales-tax money to transit instead of roads.

The accusations came after a legislative audit was released Tuesday afternoon. According to the audit, a math mistake and "bias" toward transit may have eliminated some road projects from being funded with a quarter-cent sales tax hike approved by voters last November.

The audit found Salt Lake County officials used a flawed process that ranked transit higher than several road projects when deciding what to fund with the tax hike. The process was flawed because of a math error, the audit said.

Using that process, county leaders selected three rail projects to be funded by the tax hike: commuter rail to Provo and TRAX lines to West Valley City and South Jordan.

The math error caused commuter rail to be ranked No. 2 on a priority list of projects to be funded, instead of where it really belonged — at No. 19, according to the audit. The TRAX projects were also ranked artificially high, the audit said.

"For those of us who invested so much time in this, I feel somewhat, personally, snookered," House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said during a meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee.

The committee voted to send the audit to the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee for action at a later date.

West Valley City Mayor Dennis Nordfelt, who helped select the projects to be funded, told the committee he believed that, regardless of the math error, transit would have been selected over road projects, such as the reconstruction of 9000 South in Salt Lake County.

The audit said county leaders demonstrated a bias toward transit, and Nordfelt said that was true — at least in his case. But he also said officials followed the law in selecting transit over some road projects.

The law allowed for county leaders to use their own judgment in selecting projects to be funded, but only after they followed a clear-set selection process for projects that was outlined by the Legislature.

Nordfelt said it was "fair to say" that the Legislature as a whole wanted roads to receive more funding from the tax hike than they did. About one-third of the hike went to roads, he said. The rest was directed to transit.

Bruce Jones, attorney for the Utah Transit Authority, said county leaders did nothing wrong.

"I don't think the process was slanted," he said.

Mark Crockett, with the Salt Lake County Council, said he believed the process had a "lot of give and take."

"If we ever get a next time, maybe we should get some additional math homework early on," he said.

But Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, warned that Salt Lake County leaders could face trouble in the upcoming legislative session.

"In general, I would say this could significantly affect the ability of local government to come back to the Legislature," Valentine said, arguing county leaders did not follow the intent of the Legislature in selecting the projects.