September 9, 2009
Aaron Falk


The Utah Taxpayers Association offered a rare endorsement of a Salt Lake City bond Wednesday, throwing its support behind the $125 million plan for a new public-safety complex in the heart of the capital city.

“The easiest word we have in our vocabulary at the Taxpayers Association is two letters: no,” said Sen. Howard Stephenson, the watchdog group’s president. “It’s also been said by some that hell will freeze over before the Utah Taxpayers Association endorses a Salt Lake City bond. I’m here to announce this morning that hell has frozen over.”

After touring the current public-safety building, 315 E. 200 South, the need to replace the building became apparent, Stephenson said. Not only would the building crumble under the force of a major earthquake, but plastic sheets cover shelves of evidence to protect the materials against leaky ceilings, he said.

“It really is an embarrassment to our community,” said Stephenson, R-Draper. “It’s time for a new building.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker pointed to a recent designation by the Department of Homeland Security that identifies Salt Lake City as one of the 62 metropolitan areas most vulnerable to a natural or man-made disaster.

There is an “undeniable need” to replace the building, Becker said.

But replacing the building, built in the late 1950s, also would save taxpayers in the long run, Stephenson and Becker said.

“The operating costs for this building are excessive,” Becker said.

The Taxpayers Association did not support bonding for a public-safety complex in 2007, but Stephenson said his organization was impressed with the city’s efforts to pare back costs this time, addressing critical needs instead of frivolities.

In recent years, the watchdog group has been leery of Salt Lake City’s “smorgasbord” bonding efforts, Stephenson said.

“This is not as sexy as those other issues,” he said. “This is not as glamorous as parks or soccer fields. But this is basic to our quality of life.”

The $125 million price tag would cover the cost of building a five-story police and fire headquarters and a three-story emergency-operations center downtown.

But Becker said ongoing talks with state leaders could lead to combining efforts — and funding — to lower the overall cost of the project.

A decision from the state is not expected until the end of the 2010 legislative session. And Stephenson’s endorsement could be particularly beneficial to the city’s efforts on Capitol Hill.

The senator said he would personally lobby his fellow legislators.

“It just makes perfect sense,” he said. “It would be a missed opportunity for the Legislature to let that go. … I’m confident the Legislature would want to participate.”

The city, meanwhile, would work toward finalizing its plans for the complex, continuing to identify ways to cut the project’s cost. To that end, the city remains in talks with Salt Lake County about the possibility of adding the District Attorney’s Office into the mix, said Helen Langan, Becker’s senior adviser.