In response to citizen concerns, the Grand County Council conducted a public forum to answer questions and to discuss the pros and cons of the county joining the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC), on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at the Grand Center.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition is a proposed partnership between Grand, San Juan, Uintah, Duchesne, Daggett, Carbon, and Emery counties for the expressed purpose of promoting resource development, and to “identify and secure funding for ownership and control of projects, infrastructure, facilities, and improvements.”
Proponents say the Coalition will give the counties of southeastern Utah greater clout when competing for funds with the Wasatch Front, as well as enable counties to take on larger projects they couldn’t handle on their own.
“As we know in rural Utah, our voice is getting smaller,” Uintah County commissioner Mike McKee said. “A coalition will help us be more effective in dealing with the Utah legislature.”
Opponents of the idea believe that the coalition will bind Grand County to projects it might not want to be involved in, and that ultimately, Grand County taxpayers may be held liable.
Approximately 300 people attended the forum, where an assembled six-person panel responded to questions submitted during a public comment period. Questions were asked concerning a potential loss of local power to Grand County; the necessity of creating an extra layer of government; the potential loss of Community Impact Board (CIB) funds; the vagueness of the contract leaving Grand County open to liability; and ultimately, how would joining the SCIC benefit Grand County.
Panel members included McKee; Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) transportation commission chairman Jeff Holt; Eric Johnson, the attorney who drafted the interlocal agreement; Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald; Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley; and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison.
“The meeting was a step in the right direction, but it was ultimately frustrating” Grand County resident Alice Drogin said. “My questions weren’t answered.”
Former Grand County commissioner Ray Tibbetts said that his perceptions had changed.
“I wasn’t for it intially,” he said. “But I feel better about it now. Sometimes it’s a good thing to band together and support one another.”
Holt said that the coalition concept came together by analyzing the various needs of counties in the area and how they could take advantage of their geography and provide infrastructure as well as transportation for oil and gas resources. In return, he said, municipalities might be able to realize some form of “friction” fee from materials that are being transported.
“As oil and gas funds spin off to every teeny little project, like gold-plated cemeteries, how do we fund the big projects?” Holt asked. “We need to think about the connecting spots between these huge canyons … looking at all the connectivity … a group of counties working together.”
Fitzgerald said that there are benefits to being part of a stronger organization but that, “this agreement is very open ended.”
“This document is drafted for the benefit of the coalition,” Fitzgerald said. “Getting oil out of the Uintah Basin is very important for the neighboring counties, but when you sign up for something very broad, you’re buying a lawsuit.”
Fitzgerald recommended that the council look at what would give them the strongest bargaining power.
“If the county joins, then our vote is one out of seven,” he said. Our voice might be diluted.”
Johnson acknowledged that the agreement was vague, but said that it “left the door open,” and that when individual projects come up, that legislative bodies of each county will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to participate through a supplemental contract.
“That is where the certainty comes in,” he said.
Other than the proposed Book Cliffs road that would connect Grand and Uintah counties from I-70 to the recently paved Seep Ridge Road, other specific projects related to Grand County have not yet been identified.
Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said that if the county were to join the SCIC, it would have the ability to generate ideas and put them before the coalition.
“The one that comes to my mind would be help with a passenger rail terminal at the Atlas clean-up site when that project is completed,” Jackson said.
Council member Gene Ciarus suggested that projects that might qualify include jail improvements that are expected to cost $3-5 million, as well as roads that need resurfacing. He said that the county is engaged in a facility study and that it is in need of an upgraded Emergency Medical Services (EMS) center.
Council vice-chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs, said that the panel provided good information for the most part, but she said that some questions were not addressed at all. She cited a question related to CIB loans and grants, and how much seed money was pledged and where it came from.
“Since the whole issue of CIB funding is a big part of the discussion, I was hoping for more information for our citizens as well as for myself,” she said.
CIB funding comes from oil and gas royalties and provides loans or grants to state agencies and subdivisions of the state that are socially or economically impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands.
Erley said that he was worried about using Community Impact Board (CIB) funds for projects like the Book Cliffs road and for a railway line between Carbon and Uintah counties.
“If we use CIB money for this, that’s money that can’t go back into the community,” he said. “CIB funds are supposed to offset the impacts of extraction.”
Utah state statute “authorizes the CIB to fund the following types of activities: planning, construction and maintenance of public facilities, and provision of public services. The CIB’s administrative rules further define “public facilities and services” to mean public infrastructure traditionally provided by governmental entities.”
At the last CIB funding cycle, the board awarded $55 million of a $56 million “surplus” to what is currently a six-county coalition. $5 million will be used to inventory the participating counties infrastructure needs, while the other $50 million will go toward the development of a $3 billion dollar railroad line between Uintah and Carbon counties for the purpose of hauling crude oil out of the Uintah Basin.
Local attorney Christina Sloan questioned whether it is legal to use CIB funds for the railway.
“It is unclear whether a short-line railroad project that benefits a defined industry qualifies as a public facility and service,” Sloan said. “It’s especially interesting since Governor (Gary) Herbert has stated that this project does not qualify for a state public works project or taxpayer money.”
Grand County resident Mary Beth Fitzburgh said that an adequate explanation for how large-scale projects such as this will ultimately be paid for hasn’t been given, nor has a satisfactory explanation for how the counties expect to generate revenue from the projects.
“The Coalition is planning to pay for this rail line with a $3 billion federal loan and will have 35 years post-construction to pay it off,” Fitzburgh said. “Excess revenues will not be available to member counties until all of a project’s debts are paid for. In 35 years, after the rail line is constructed, how much oil and gas will the Uintah Basin be producing?”
Grand County resident Joe Kingsley said that he supports the county’s participation in the SCIC.
“I feel that for us not to be at the table is short-sighted and misdirected,” he said. “They have already voted for some money and we didn’t have a say in it. The problem with CIB funds is that they are all in a pool, most of which goes to the Wasatch Front. This (coalition) is a way to get funds down here.”
Holt said that the idea is to build things that you can’t build on your own.
“What do the counties need?” he asked. “What does the region need to have connected, what about the state, the country?”
Tubbs said that she felt the meeting was productive.
“To me the most important part of the meeting was that our citizens had an opportunity to raise questions and have their concerns heard,” she said. “On the whole, I believe that issues as important as this, that could have impacts for everyone in the county for many years to come, need to have public participation. This is not something the council should make a quick decision about without public input.”
The Grand County Council will be accepting further comments until 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5. Comments may be submitted to email@example.com or to the council office at 125 E. Center Street, Moab, Utah 84532.
Grand County remains divided on whether or not to join Coalition
The meeting was a step in the right direction, but it was ultimately frustrating. My questions weren’t answered.