UTOPIA mayors looking for alternative method to poll residents

By Benjamin Wood, Deseret News

Published: Fri, Aug. 22, 2014, 2:10 p.m. MDT

 Community members ask questions about UTOPIA during a Lindon city council meeting at Lindon City Center, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

Community members ask questions about UTOPIA during a Lindon city council meeting at Lindon City Center, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

(Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

WEST VALLEY CITY — Elections officials have put the brakes on a proposal to have voters weigh in on a controversial Internet utility fee during November's election, but the mayors of six UTOPIA cities say they still intend to seek public input.

Earlier this month, the mayors of Layton, West Valley, Tremonton, Perry, Brigham City and Midvale announced their intention to push for a non-binding ballot question asking residents whether they approve of a roughly $20 monthly utility fee to maintain and complete the embattled UTOPIA fiber-optic network.

But state and county elections officials have reviewed the law and have determined that such a ballot question is not allowed.

"As much as it's nice to get citizen input and have citizens weigh in, the way the current code is doesn’t allow for it," Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said.

Swensen said the issue is not whether the question is binding or non-binding, but rather that ballot questions must either be specifically approved or deal with particular uses listed in statute, such as bonding.

"There’s certain things that are allowed by statute under state law, and opinion questions are not unless they are approved by the Legislature," she said.

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency was created more than a decade ago by a consortium of 11 cities. It was envisioned as a means for providing ubiquitous access to high-speed data service.

But the network has been plagued by operating deficits and stalled construction, resulting in an incomplete build-out that cities continue to pay for through debt obligations.

Macquarie Capitol Group, an Australia-based investment firm, has offered to complete construction and assume management of the network for 30 years in exchange for a universal fee levied against all residents.

Five cities — Centerville, Lindon, Murray, Orem and Payson — have rejected Macquarie's proposal, and while city councils in the remaining six cities voted to move forward, the respective mayors have called for greater public input to settle lingering division.

"We’re just looking at all the options and trying to figure out what’s best, what will work and what will get the best participation under the circumstances," West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow said. "We said we’re going to take it to the people, and we will."

Bigelow said it is likely the cities will use some form of mail-in ballot, though he added that they are working "literally every day" to explore options and determine the best way to proceed.

There are concerns related to sponsoring a poll that need to be addressed, he said, such as the potential to create confusion if the utility fee ballot is distributed too close to November's election or a decline in voter participation.

"If we get a very low turnout, it really doesn’t tell us anything," Bigelow said. "We need to have participation, so we’re going to work very aggressively at getting our citizens to participate."

Bigelow said that beyond the structure of how voters are polled, and independent of whether they accept or reject the Macquarie proposal, the 11 cities involved with UTOPIA continue to have pressing issues to address regarding the network.

"This will answer part of the problem, but not all of it," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

1. Jim Cobabe
Provo, UT,
Aug. 22, 2014

Not to crow about it, but I am absolutely enthralled with Google Fiber service in Provo. So happy to be no longer subjected to years and years of bureaucratic haggling and footdragging. Not to mention all the grand promises so many other ISPs failed to keep. Google said they would provide fast reliable service, and as far as I am concerned, they were as good as their word.

2. DEW Cougars
Sandy, UT,
Aug. 22, 2014

@Jim Cobabe
Provo, UT

So what is your monthly fee for Google Fiber and whoever your ISP and whatever hidden fees?

3. environmental idiot
Sanpete, UT,
Aug. 23, 2014

Depends on how you price Utopia against Google. Utopia's actual provider charges for data are cheaper than Google. However, Utopia has a build out monthly fee to it's users for the hardware that make Utopia's total monthly fee $20 to $30 more than Google. However, if you don't live in a Google served city you're screwed. Utopia serves more cities than Google. The only other option is ComCast... if you want high pricing, data throttling and crappy service.

4. My2Cents
Taylorsville, UT,
Aug. 23, 2014

Why is the city councils even considering such a ridiculous tax for a utility they don't even use? The $20/month is hardly nominal, and to tax people to fund a private business is illegal and unconstitional.

Its a no brainer and no one has the spine to notify anyone through the news media about this permanent utility tax and for services they don't get or want.

If people think the service is fine good for them, they have a choice to use it or not. This utility tax is nothing more than a corporate profit payment to a company that is marginally acceptable by the state and cities at large. The company is nearly out of business and the utility tax is bailout funds for the UTOPIA corporation.

Its a no brainer, UNOPIA is a fraud and criminal organization trying to tax people to pay share holders and investors.

5. mcdugall
Murray, UT,
Aug. 23, 2014

@My2Cents - The proposed $20 dollar fee provides a faster and cheaper internet connection than anything currently available to consumers. Also, it's a 30 year agreement, not permanent. And UTOPIA is not a corporation, it's an inter-local municipally owned agency. As of today, UTOPIA has not committed any criminal activities.