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A rocky road: Funding Salt Lake street repairs after a recession

SALT LAKE CITY — It all started with a pothole.

Bill Davis traveled 1300 South regularly for work, and as the snow and ice of a bitter winter melted, he noticed more and more hazards emerging. But he was distracted that night in March, and as he turned onto the pock-marked road from 300 West, he couldn't see the large holes he usually swerved to avoid.

"I turned left onto 1300 South, and it was like, 'wham!'" Davis said. "I was like, "Oh geez, that's right, I forgot about this.' … But the problem was it was dark enough you couldn't see them."

Davis continued on his way, but could tell his car had taken a damaging hit. The next morning, a mechanic discovered the tire was flat, the wheel cover had popped loose, the rim was bent and the car's suspension had been jarred free.

In the end, repairs cost Davis about $500, making a property tax passed this week by the Salt Lake City Council in the name of improving the city's infrastructure sound like a much more affordable solution, he told Councilwoman Jill Remington Love.

"It needed to happen," said Davis, whose experience became a prime example for council members lobbying for the tax hike. "If (the city) doesn't provide (services), all you're doing is pushing the cost of dealing with that need down to the citizen."

Davis recently threw his hat in the ring against Ernest Lloyd Cox and Erin Mendenhall, who are running for the District Five seat that Love is vacating.

Pain felt by all

As Salt Lake City waded through the depths of the recent recession, it faced the same challenge as population centers across the country: how to pay for basic services despite declining revenue.

"We're no different than every other city and every state in this country," Mayor Ralph Becker said. "If you look at the backlog of infrastructure needs in Salt Lake City compared to anyone else, we're probably in a lot better shape than most other communities."

Still, it's not a long-term solution, Becker admits.

Similar pains were felt across Salt Lake County. Outgoing county Mayor Peter Corroon spent his final weeks in office championing a 16.2 percent tax increase, the first the county had seen in more than a decade, which passed the County Council in December. About $8.1 million of that increase was dedicated to long neglected repairs for county facilities.

Of the many facilities owned and operated by Salt Lake County — 102 parks, 21 rec centers, 19 swimming pools, seven health centers, three ice centers and three fine arts centers — several are in need of roof work, furnace updates or other repairs, said county communications director Alyson Heyrend.

Among those facilities first in line to benefit from the increase is a replacement of the structurally unsound Fleet Service Facility, repairs to the public health building and renovation at the Capitol Theatre.

More with less

Becker asserted this week that despite limited resources, Salt Lake City has done better than most at maintaining basic services, taking advantage of low construction costs and slowly but steadily increasing the amount of real dollars dedicated to capital improvement projects.

The budget Becker recommended for the next fiscal year stayed within the 7 percent range for capital projects, about the same it has been since 2005. But with marginal revenue increases, that 7 percent came to be $14,066,691 for capital improvement projects, an increase of nearly $350,000 compared to the previous year.

The Salt Lake City Council overrode Becker's veto Friday to add a 13.8 percent property tax hike to that budget, adding $5 million for capital improvement projects. How much of that influx will be dedicated to roads could be determined in a July 9 City Council meeting, which is slated as an opportunity to prioritize capital needs. The meeting will include a public hearing.

The remaining $3 million in revenue from the tax increase will go to needs within the general fund.

Through much of Becker's tenure, roughly 50 to 60 percent of capital improvement project funding has gone to road repairs annually, according to a spokesman for the mayor's office. That estimate does not include road projects covered by bond funding, basic road treatments, signal work or striping work.

Eric Shaw, director of the Community and Economic Development Department, came to Salt Lake City seven months ago after working in Louisiana, and has found plenty his new department should be proud of.

By comparison to the rest of the country, Utah's capital city has adjusted through lean years. One example, he said, is that departments have learned to coordinate road work with utility repairs and fiber-optic installation, minimizing cost and impact.

The department is also learning to leverage funds to get the most for its money, Shaw said, using the Chicago Infrastructure Trust as a possible example.

With limited resources, the focus has been placed as much as possible on high-traffic roads, which has left some residential streets to erode and crumble, he said.

"I think right now that on the highly traveled roads, people are seeing the glaring needs associated with that, and we understand those needs," Shaw said. "We've been trying to figure out the best investment strategies for long-term work, and in the interim we've been trying to figure out solutions."

Jeff Snelling, deputy city engineer, said the city has managed to preserve most of its programs, which include curb and gutter repairs, though at a reduced scale and with fewer funds. Like all city departments, Snelling said he is constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency.

"The city is looking at all possible avenues for (road repairs), and addressing it," Snelling said. "It isn't something that's being ignored, it's something that's on our front burner that we're trying to deal with in the best way possible, with limited resources."

In the next year, 1300 South near the freeway onramp and 1700 South between State Street and 700 East could be likely candidates for repairs, Snelling said.

Opposite sides

Since introducing his recommended budget, Becker has been adamant that a lean, no-frills approach would get the city through one more year, allowing time for careful planning before large-scale road rehabilitation begins. He also wonders whether the city has the manpower to plan and carry out new projects in light of reduced staffing.

A majority contingency from the council disagreed, insisting that without immediate action, the city and its taxpayers will face higher costs down the road.

"We have come to the conclusion we cannot continue to delay fixing our aging streets," Council Chairman Kyle LaMalfa said following Friday's override vote. "We are not proposing lavish expenditures. … Cheaper repairs now mean less costly replacement later."

Shaw said that while everyone at City Hall feels "a sense of urgency," its simply a matter of two different approaches.

"It's not a matter of who's right," Shaw said. "All of us live in the same city, all of us understand this, all of us are working from similar data."

Snelling and Shaw were unsure what a sudden influx of revenue will mean for their departments, and will be waiting to see what instructions come with their piece of the pie.

"I don't think we know, that's something that will be fleshed out," Snelling said. "We're waiting for guidance from our political leaders."


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