November 2, 2009
Derek P. Jensen

Two years ago, eight City Council contests across Salt Lake County were decided by fewer than 70 votes. In 2003, voters had to shake loose a mayoral tie with a dice roll.
Sure, municipal off-year elections aren’t sexy, but they’re often close. For that reason, Salt Lake City leaders lined up Monday, encouraging residents to hit the ballot box today.

“I want to remind people,” Mayor Ralph Becker said, “that every vote counts.”

But the real reason politicians, police and firefighters posed for the cameras in front of City Hall was as conspicuous as the gleaming red fire engine they stood before: They really want capital voters to pass the $125 million bond for a new public-safety complex.

“This is an opportunity to finance something at a reasonable rate and at low construction costs,” City Council Chairman Carlton Christensen implored about Proposition 1. “There really isn’t a better time.”

Christensen joked that the police bond — supported by at least 60 percent of likely city voters, according to polls — is more important than his own re-election bid. In all, four Salt Lake City Council seats are on the line today.

Becker and Co. hope Prop 1 is the tonic that washes away the bitter taste of 2007, when a $192 million public-safety bond fell by a mere 262 votes. This time, there is no formal opposition. It is even backed by the Utah Taxpayers Association.

“That is very encouraging,” Police Chief Chris Burbank said Monday.

If approved, Prop 1 would fund a five-story police-fire headquarters and three-story emergency-operations center to be erected just east of Library Square between 400 South and 500 South. It would cost $75 more a year for the owner of an average $260,000 home.

The Mayor’s Office paid a consultant $75,000, then raised thousands more from private business to boost awareness of the bond. Mailboxes across the city have been blanketed by ads outlining the need to replace the dilapidated police building on 200 South.

Some grumble that the capital city overdid it by placing large Nov. 3 Election Day signs on firetrucks. The reference to “Proposition 1” — although the signs don’t tell people how to vote — is none too subtle, critics argue.

Still, they pass muster with the city attorney, and cross no electioneering lines, city officials concur.

“We’ve been erring on the conservative side,” Becker’s senior adviser, Helen Langan, said about the campaign. “This is all about education.”

Laws prohibit the city from advocacy on a bond issue, unless it comes from an elected official. In 2007, police were criticized for having dispatchers stuff envelopes with fliers advocating that public-safety bond.

“We learned our lessons from last time,” new Fire Chief Kurt Cook said. “It was more just a message to get out and vote.”

Councilman J.T. Martin had a message for voters who may have strong feelings either way.

“You are really in the driver’s seat.”