Roy Burton
December 11, 2009

In front of an overflow crowd spilling into the hallway and down the stairs of the city offices, the Brigham City Council voted 3-1 Thursday to approve a bond finalizing terms for a special assessment area to the UTOPIA fiber optic communications network.

The meeting was not a public hearing, but with a large contingent of supporters and opposition on hand, Mayor Lou Ann Christensen offered both sides 10 minutes to comment on the ordinance, with the caveat that speakers had to be a Brigham City resident.

That left several who had prepared remarks, including representatives of the Utah Taxpayers Association, on the sidelines. The association sent postcards to Brigham City residents stating its position against UTOPIA before the meeting, with Christensen and the majority of the board responding with a letter of rebuttal on the city Web site.

Councilmen Reese Jensen, Bruce Christensen and Bob Marabella voted in favor, with Councilwoman Ruth Jensen opposed. Councilman Scott Ericson was absent from the vote, but asked for a letter of support to be read by Mayor Lou Ann Christensen.

Ruth Jensen first asked for the council to move the meeting to a larger venue, then later asked for a delay in the vote to hold another public hearing and offer people to a chance to rescind their $3,000 commitment to UTOPIA.

The bond, which was approved in November, was for $3.66 million, with the total cost of construction of the network at $5.45 million. The council also voted to pay $481,761 to bring the network to city facilities, including $188,036 to complete buildout of the entire city.

Brigham City and 10 other Utah cities are responsible for the public/private partnership to bring UTOPIA to their residents.

The $3,000 assessment, which can be paid over 20 years at a rate of approximately $22.50 per month, also places a lien on the property. The assessment is intended to be paid only by those who opt in, supporters said; those who use it will pay for it.

The equivalent of 1,624 residents, weighted with business and apartment complexes, signed up for the service, though Ruth Jensen argued some of them didn’t understand the terms.

Mayor Christensen called the network a model for the rest of the United States and the world, providing infrastructure that will help residents and economic development in the city.

“We are really groundbreaking,” Christensen said. “I believe we are doing this because it will lower your rates. Competition brings down prices.”

Laura Lewis, representing the city’s financial advisor, said the bond was locked in at a true interest cost of 4.95 percent, with an all-inclusive cost (comparable to an annual percentage rate in the private sector) of 5.5 percent.

Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said it’s wrong for government to be in the business of competing with the private sector.

“The Brigham City Council is throwing good money after bad. UTOPIA has already acknowledged that they’re going to be calling on the sales tax pledges. Their budget for this year anticipates another $24 million loss just on the operations,” Van Tassell said. “This is unfortunately another example of where elected officials think that they can break the laws of supply and demand.”

Reese Jensen compared building the network to the construction of Interstate 15 years ago. He said he didn’t like the way the city got to this point after missteps by UTOPIA in the past, but believes Brigham City has a moral obligation to continue with the other cities involved.

“We’re past the point of no return,” he said.