Trying to get six cities to agree on language and timing has proven to be interesting. You have different elected officials with different ideas. – West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow
WEST VALLEY CITY — The mayors of six Utah cities say they've decided how to poll residents on a controversial Internet utility fee. But when and exactly what will be asked is still under consideration.
West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow said that in the next two weeks, he and the mayors of Layton, Tremonton, Midvale, Brigham City and Perry hope to finalize the language and timetable for a mail-in ballot asking residents whether they approve of charging a universal monthly fee to complete and maintain the UTOPIA fiber-optic network.
"It’s going to be a mail-in ballot, we’ve determined that," Bigelow said. "We’re just trying to figure out what the right timing is."
The mayors had originally hoped to include an opinion question on November's general election ballot, but state and county election officials determined that Utah law does not permit the general polling of city residents during an election.
Bigelow said the mayors are trying to avoid a situation where the utility fee ballots are mistaken for general election ballots and to approve ballot language that explains the issue without confusing residents.
"Trying to get six cities to agree on language and timing has proven to be interesting," he said. "You have different elected officials with different ideas."
The six cities are among 11 that joined together more than a decade ago to create the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which was envisioned as a way to provide ubiquitous access to high-speed data services.
But budget shortfalls, low sign-ups and stalled construction has left the fiber-optic network incomplete, serving far short of its intended customer base and languishing in debt.
An Australia-based investment firm, Macquarie Capitol Group, has offered to complete construction and assume management of the network for 30 years. But the proposal would require that all residents pay an estimated $20 in monthly fees whether they use the service or not.
Five cities rejected the proposal, but the city councils of West Valley City, Layton, Brigham City, Perry, Midvale and Tremonton voted to move forward to the second of several milestones established by Macquarie.
Bigelow said that a mail-in ballot was chosen because the mayors felt that polling residents on the same day as the general election could lead to confusion, while asking voters to return to polling stations for a separate vote would drive down participation.
"People will be less likely to come to a poll and do it," he said. "We figure by doing this as a mailed ballot that we’ll get more of a response."
Layton Mayor Bob Stevenson said he anticipates the UTOPIA balloting will be conducted after November's election to allow city leaders time to publicize the vote and for residents to educate themselves on the issue.
"I’m hoping that by a week from Friday we’ve got that finalized," he said.
Stevenson said the UTOPIA question is complicated because a vote against the fee is not the same as a vote against continued involvement with the fiber-optic network.
He said residents need to understand that whether or not the Macquarie proposal moves forward, cities are still under bond obligations related to UTOPIA.
"A vote 'no' is not a vote for UTOPIA to disappear," he said. "A vote 'no,' in a sense, is that yes, we’re still going to be paying for bonds but we’re not going to have anything in return."