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With $580M at stake, Salt Lake City School District wants a voice on inland port board

SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated by a lack of involvement in the Utah Inland Port Authority even though they represent the taxing entity most impacted, the Salt Lake City School District board is exploring ways to give itself some sway.

And though nothing has been decided as a school board, one member is suggesting a lawsuit if they can't get a seat at the table.

"I think if we don't get a good response, I think we ought to talk to our attorney and see if we should sue on constitutional issues," board member Michael Nemelka told the Deseret News Monday.

But Heather Bennett, president of the board, said a lawsuit is not something the board as a whole is seriously weighing, given the resources it would require. Rather, she said they're focusing on "positive" ways to get the school district more involved in the ever-evolving port authority discussion.

"Our school board is just interested in having a voice as the discussions about the inland port continue," Bennett said.

So far, she said the school board has been "dependent" on city officials to keep the school board looped in.

The school district wasn't given a seat on the Utah Inland Port Authority's 11-member board under SB234, the law passed on the second-to-last day of this year's legislative session.

Salt Lake City officials have estimated that over the next 25 years as the inland port — envisioned to be a global trade hub — is built out, the port authority will take control of more than $1.4 billion in new tax revenue, of which $581 million would be new tax revenue for the Salt Lake City School District.

Since its inception, city officials have protested SB234 because it gives the port authority the power to usurp the city's ultimate land use authority and capture 100 percent of the more than 20,000-square-foot project area's tax increment.

But state leaders, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, have pushed for the port authority, arguing the inland port is expected to be the state's largest-ever economic development project and something one city cannot and should not manage on its own.

So for the last several months, city and state officials have remained gridlocked over how — if at all — SB234 will be changed after Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski rejected a compromise bill drafted by the governor's office, canceling a special session.

Biskupski has also said a lawsuit against the state has remained an option — though not a preferred option. Earlier this month, amid worries that a lawsuit with the state could come without buy-in from the Salt Lake City Council, the council blocked Biskupski from starting litigation over the inland port without its approval.

And most recently, the status of Hughes' own seat on the board has been thrown into question because he owns several properties within a five-mile restricted zone SB234 prohibits port authority board members from owning land within, essentially disqualifying the speaker from his self-appointed seat.

"I don't think they really know what they're doing right now, to be honest with you," Nemelka said.

So Nemelka said he wants the school board to send a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert's office to request a seat on the port authority.

"I think any taxing entity who's going to be affected should have a member on the board," he said.

But Bennett said the board as a whole hasn't yet decided to send that letter.

"When we were initially exploring that idea, (we learned) it would be very unlikely that we would get a seat, so we're looking at all the ways we can let our concerns be known and have communication lines open," Bennett said.

Right now, they're exploring ways to be involved by setting up meetings with state officials and Utah Inland Port Authority board members.

"We know this is a really complex issue, and we want to make sure that we stay informed as it moves forward," she said.