August 5, 2010

Salt Lake County voters will be asked to put the finishing touches on the new Utah Museum of Natural History. The County Council voted 6-0 Tuesday to place a 15-year, $15 million bond issue on the November ballot.

The owner of the average $265,000 home would pay just $2.40 more per year — less than a penny a day — if the bond is approved. But, with everybody pinching pennies, there’s no guarantee of success.

Several council members and the Utah Taxpayers Association expressed reservations about the timing of the funding request, which would enable museum officials to complete the exhibits in the $102 million museum and open as planned in late 2011.

But neither council members nor the taxpayers’ group are arguing against the bond; rather, they fear the poor economy coupled with other tax increases could cause voters to reject what is considered by most to be a reasonable request.

While some observers say the museum should have been built downtown to help create synergy between cultural attractions, few would argue that the museum should stay put on Presidents Circle on the University of Utah campus. The museum’s expansive collection of Utah antiquities is vulnerable to everything from earthquakes and changing temperatures to water leaks in the aging structure, while space is at a premium. The new museum will nearly double that size to 165,000 square feet.

Museum officials have already done most of the heavy lifting for the new building, raising more than $86 million of the $102 million tab with a combination of government grants and private donations. Rio Tinto, owner of Kennecott Utah Copper, gave $15 million and will lend its name to the facility, which is under construction at the U’s Research Park.

Judging by past bond questions for cultural facilities, including the Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary, a majority of Salt Lake County voters are likely to support the measure. But it’s the impact on the minority, the folks who repeatedly vote against such expenditures and have tax hikes forced upon them, that worries Councilman David Wilde.

That’s a hazard of living in a democracy — majority rules. But Wilde makes a point. Voters will want to weigh the impact on their neighbors versus the benefit to the museum, a popular destination for school field trips and family outings.

Still, $2.40 a year seems a nominal sum. And the voters are certainly capable of deciding what’s best for themselves. The council was wise to forward the request to the people who pay the bills.