UTOPIA/UIA Boards Divided Between Opt-In and Opt-Out Cities

The past month has seen some big UTOPIA news in the popular press. But behind what’s hitting the papers, bigger issues are dividing the once united UTOPIA/UIA Boards. A clear wedge has developed between cities opting-in to the uNOpia tax, a utility fee model for financing build out of the UTOPIA network, and those cities opting-out. This divide centers on the desire of opt-out cities to explore options other than the uNOpia tax, and actions from WVC, Midvale and Layton that prevent them from doing so.

On August 6th Mayors from the 6 UTOPIA cities that voted to move forward to Macquarie’s Milestone 2 announced that they want voters to weigh in on the uNOpia tax through an opinion question on the ballot this November. Following their announcement, several county clerks responded with a formal statement noting that cities lack the legal authority to place such a question on the ballot. UTOPIA’s 6 opt-in cities are now planning a non-binding opinion survey of their residents this fall.

The 5 cities that opted-out of proceeding with the uNOpia tax seem to be feeling left in the dark. In the August UTOPIA/UIA Board meetings they expressed frustration at not being given advance notice of the planned vote of the people.

Opt-out cities are also frustrated by the Boards’ unwillingness to consider a second proposal for building out the UTOPIA network. About 2 months ago, FirstDigital Telecom, a local broadband provider, approached the UTOPIA/UIA Boards with a proposal to partner with UTOPIA. Their proposal doesn’t require a uNOpia tax. Instead, it gives UTOPIA cities the option of moving forward without a utility fee. The Boards agreed to formally vote on August 11 whether or not to proceed with additional review of the FirstDigital proposal. Formal approval would allow the Board to dedicate UTOPIA staff time to further vetting FirstDigital and provide FirstDigital with protected information they need to refine their proposal.

Despite high interest from members of the Boards and several city councils, Alex Jensen, chair of the UIA Board, declined to put the FirstDigital proposal on the August agenda, thereby preventing the Board from taking any action. On numerous previous occasions, Jensen had called the FirstDigital proposal “fatally flawed” and a “distraction” away from the uNOpia tax proposal. Several Board members expressed surprise, anger and frustration at Jensen preventing them from considering a non-uNOpia tax proposal. Following tense discussion, the Board arranged a special session August 20th to determine the fate of the FirstDigital proposal.

Because WVC, Midvale and Layton together represent a majority of the votes on the UTOPIA board (each city’s vote is weighted based on that city’s proportionate share of the 11 cities’ overall population), their relentless negative statements over the past few months made it very clear the FirstDigital proposal would go nowhere. As expected, during the special session held August 20th, the triumvirate voted against further vetting of the FirstDigital proposal, while the other cities voted to continue learning more. The fissures exposed following the triumvirate’s power play were gaping. Some board members representing opt-out cities all but accused the opt-in cities of “blocking” their efforts to get more info about non-uNOpia tax proposals. As long as WVC, Midvale and Layton remain united, their votes have the power to control the entire UTOPIA/UIA Boards.

As UTOPIA’s opt-in cities now move forward with their planned public survey this fall, the Utah Taxpayers Association has offered to assist them in developing a useful survey instrument. The structure and wording of a survey dictates its outcome, and the Association wants to assist in identifying accurate and unbiased questions so that elected officials can trust the results. Your Utah Taxpayers Association will also engage in a vigorous public education campaign urging voters to vote AGAINST the uNOpia tax that would lead to a $1.8 billion tax increase.