Utah lawmakers are taking more control over millions of tax dollars allocated for the state’s Olympic venues as a decision is nearing on whether Salt Lake City will host another Winter Games in 2030 or 2034.
Over the past six years, the Utah Legislature has appropriated more than $94 million to operate, maintain and renovate facilities from the 2002 Winter Games, a total that’s expected to eventually exceed $140 million.
But $41.5 million of those tax dollars had not been distributed due to questions raised about oversight.
Neither the private nonprofit Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation making the funding requests nor the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management is coordinating all of the projects, which include some local government facilities.
Recently, members of the Executive Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to free up $33.5 million for projects at the state-built facilities controlled by the foundation that include the Utah Olympic Park’s ski jumps and sliding track near Park City.
The state construction division was authorized to contract with the Olympic legacy foundation for the funds, and is expected to spell out performance measures and provide quarterly progress reports to the legislative leaders that serve on the committee.
The oversight concerns were detailed in a memo from legislative staff distributed at the appropriations committee meeting on Nov. 14, that stated, “there is confusion as to what organization is responsible for overseeing these dollars.”
First circulated at a subcommittee meeting in October, the memo recommended the funding go to the existing Olympic venues grant fund and be used with guidance from the Legislature’s new Olympic coordination committee.
The money that’s been held up includes $1.1 million for ice rinks in Salt Lake and Weber counties that do not yet have finalized plans, all that remains unspent from the $22 million approved for Olympic facilities by the 2022 Legislature.
None of the $40 million set aside for Olympic facilities by this year’s Legislature had been doled out until the November meeting. The remaining $6.5 million is expected to go toward local government projects, including renovations at West Valley City’s Maverik Center.
‘No concern about funding’
Colin Hilton, the Olympic legacy foundation’s president and CEO, told the Deseret News the issue stemmed from a “misunderstanding that somehow (the foundation) would be overseeing how funds would go to other entities.”
He said there’s not an issue with how the foundation is using the tax dollars “because we’ve got a tried and true process we’ve been doing since 2018” with the state’s construction division.
“They visit our projects all the time,” Hilton said. “There’s no concern about funding that’s been awarded. It was, how will these new funds be administered.”
The appropriation committee’s action permits work already underway, including on a $14.7 million competition management building at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Wasatch Mountain State Park, to continue without waiting for the grant process.
Although the latest version of next session’s funding request adds up to another $41 million, he said that number is “a little bit in flux at this point given uncertainty” about when there might be another Winter Games in Utah.
Salt Lake City is bidding to host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games with a preference for the later date to avoid competing for domestic sponsors with the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The bid calls for reusing 2002 venues.
While Salt Lake City is the only contender for 2034, late bids for 2030 from Sweden, Switzerland and France are still being put together under the International Olympic Committee’s new, less formal selection process.
IOC leaders could decide which cities advance to contract negotiations for both 2030 and 2034 as soon as the end of November, with a final vote of the full membership coming some time next year.
‘A shotgun approach?’
While there was no debate about the need for more oversight of the money before the November vote, members of the Legislature’s Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee had plenty to say when the issue was raised in October.
“It looks like we haven’t got a plan and really, a direction,” one subcommittee member, Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, said, questioning how funds were even approved without specifics. “It seems like it’s just kind of a shotgun approach.”
Christofferson said someone needs to be responsible for coordinating the funding, adding, “If we need to upgrade the facilities, I’m OK with that. I just feel like they kind of said, “What can we get?’”
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, agreed.
“There’s been a lot of desire to bring the Olympics back here. We’re about the only place in the world that’s actually maintaining our facilities, There’s a couple that have this venue or that, but not the entirety,” Harper said.
But although the state has been willing to spend tax dollars on the facilities, the state senator said there should be more details about how it’s being spent.
“I think we need to maintain them, but we need to have accountability and transparency as to what’s going on,” Harper said. He said lawmakers may need to make some “clarifications statutorily so we don’t have this discussion next year, or 10 years down the road.”
Another meeting of the Legislature’s Olympic and Paralympic Coordination Committee will be scheduled before the start of the 2024 session in late January, the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told the Deseret News.
“I think we’re all excited about the potential of having the Olympics come back. We’ve had some really good news lately. But we do want to make sure that we safeguard state dollars,” McKell said.
Still, he said there hasn’t been a problem with how state funds have been used in the past.
“We just need to have a process that the public sees,” McKell said. “I think we’ve been very transparent thus far, especially with our committee and during the legislative session. The Olympic legacy (foundation) has been before the Legislature many, many times.”