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Monday, November 20, 2006
Three Big Wins for the Heber Thompson Administration

American Fork City is three-for-three in the big battles this year. This post looks at those three and suggests some things on which the City may focus next year.

A new mayor, Heber Thompson, took office in American Fork less than eleven months ago. So did two new city councilors, Dale Gunther and Heidi Rodeback (the latter known here at the blog as MFCC). One incumbent, Jimmie Cates, was re-elected. (The seats held by Shirl LeBaron and Rick Storrs were not up for election.)

To put things gently, Mayor Thompson and the partly-new City Council inherited a bit of a mess. American Fork has become a small city, having rather recently grown up after generations as a small, quiet town. But in some important ways the City still had a small-town, small-time government, whose leaders had shown a pronounced tendency to postpone tough decisions and an utter lack of appreciation for the value of effective communication with the public. A decade or so of studiously ignoring some of the city's growing pains had made those pains quite acute. (To a limited degree, American Fork City government still exhibits some of the small-town, good-old-boy characteristics, but they are fading steadily under the new administration.)

With some justification, the newcomers in particular felt that they were elected to address major problems, not to pass them unsolved and further enlarged to the next batch of leaders. During the campaign there was anecdotal evidence that a lot of voters felt the same way. The November 2005 election affirmed this. A year later, in this month's passage of the secondary irrigation bond issue, there is convincing evidence that most voters still feel that way.

Among the new administration's immediate challenges were three relatively high profile issues: water, municipal broadband, and the City's finances. In each case, these issues had either been procrastinated or simply botched for years and had reached, or were fast approaching, crisis proportions. (For more than a year's worth of commentary on these issues, see my American Fork Archive.)

Budget and Taxes

Due in part to a goofy scheme the Utah Legislature imposed on property taxes long ago (see my discussion of the Certified Tax Rate elsewhere), combined with a natural reluctance to "raise" taxes (whether they are really raised or not), the City's budget was a mess. For example, needed equipment would sit idle for months or years, because there was no money to repair or replace it. And the American Fork Police Department had real trouble keeping trained and experienced personnel, mostly because it was the lowest-paid such department in Utah County.

The challenge in this case was to raise taxes as much as necessary, but  no more, and to make it obvious to the public (1) why it was necessary and (2) that a degree of frugality was applied that we ordinarily do not expect in government. This involved a gratifying but admittedly unfamiliar level of effort applied to educating the public. It was effective, though I think few voters actually appreciate the many hours of careful labor which went into getting this issue right, including the public relations.

The budget and the tax increase did not require a public vote, just a City Council vote, after a legally-mandated hearing, and two legally unnecessary but politically essential public meetings, and a mailed flyer. But the stakes were high enough without a public vote. I'm not sure which, if any, of the current elected City officials care about re-election, but even if they don't, they all have neighbors and friends in the City. Above all, botching this would have put November's public vote on a secondary water bond issue in great jeopardy of defeat.

I nitpicked some of the public relations in this matter, but in general I think they got this one right -- right enough, at least, to solve as much of the overall problem as could reasonable be solved in a single budget year, and right enough that the voters were still willing to trust them when November rolled around.


Municipal broadband is a wonderful thing for a city, in terms of image, economic growth, and quality of life. American Fork City's purchase of the old AirSwitch system several years ago was uncharacteristically forward-looking. Alas, the years of (some) mismanagement and (gross) undermanagement left the City with a mostly working (in my neighborhood, splendidly working), almost citywide system . . . and a big, sucking hole in the City budget.

I don't know how many American Forkers see the system as a big issue for its own sake or as a fiscal matter. But some do. I myself have spilled a lot of (mostly virtual) ink on the subject, and I've heard from a lot of people in and out of the city who care and are paying attention.

In any case, the financial, legal, and technical complexities of it all are not to be underestimated. Again, elected officials (with help from staff and a couple of experts) dove in, learned everything they could learn, and set about solving the problem.

Here, too, the stakes were and are significant, in terms of City finances, future economic competitiveness, and the city's image, but especially in terms of credibility with the secondary water bond vote approaching. Getting this one right, as it appears the City finally has, helps elected officials look careful, studious, and frugal. This was a good image to have as November approached. It will help in the future, too.

Not all of the current elected officials seem to accept the proven economic benefits of municipal broadband (as opposed to relying wholly on private industry), and not all value the system for itself, I think, but enough do that I think we'll be okay. The impending sale to PacketFront is still being prepared, but it looks like it will lead to an expanded and enhanced citywide system, which will largely preserve the economic benefits of a municipal system for American Fork and also mitigate the fiscal problem.

Secondary Water

Tonight in a special session, the City Council meets to certify the water bond vote. It passed by a substantial margin, about 11 percent. This is the biggest and most important victory of all for the new administration. It could easily have been jeopardized by the property tax increase or dissatisfaction with the broadband situation, if either of those attitudes had enhanced a general voter resistance to parting with more hard-earned cash. Adding to the degree of difficulty were two other unfortunate coincidences: Utah County reassessed a lot of property in American Fork this year, magnifying the effects of the property tax increase for many residents. And, as if that weren't enough, the Alpine School District was asking for hundreds of millions of dollars on the same ballot.

If there had been any serious fumbles this year on major issues, the secondary water bond issue likely would not have passed. Once again, though I quibbled with some aspects of the public relations, the City did well enough. A five-page flyer explaining the situation and the proposal went to all households at least once. The flyer itself showed evidence of considerable care to explain things accurately and clearly. Its one-color, plain-paper format also showed frugality, by comparison with the glossy, full-color flyer the Alpine School District sent out (through a proxy) to support its own bond. Two well-attended town meetings were also held, where the City made its case well enough to win some influential converts. Most or all of the elected officials personally contacted individual voters to promote a yes vote on the bond.

Again, the labor involved in all of this was more than met the voter's eye. The learning curve alone was brutal, before any decisions were even discussed.

Voters, Take a Bow

Remember that, despite the new administration's emphasis on keeping residents informed and on facing reality head-on, the voters could easily have rejected the water bond proposal for any reason, or for no reason at all. I myself have never fully trusted the voters, and I still don't. I don't generally trust government, either. (The nation's founders didn't really trust either of these.) But on this occasion in American Fork, the local government delivered, and then the voters themselves delivered..

So let's say a word or two in tribute to the voters. In fact, let's let Thomas Jefferson do it:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion. (Letter to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820)

As a practical matter, this year, the City regarded the voters highly enough to "inform their discretion." It found not only the will but the ability to do it effectively. I could get used to this.

The City is now three-for-three in the big ones this year.

What's Next?

Nothing's over until it's over. A great deal of work remains to be done on broadband and secondary irrigation. Some real and figurative bumps in the road are inevitable over the next three years or so. Moreover, work on the next fiscal year's budget will soon come into focus. All of this will keep City officials busy.

But you might wonder: What is next, now that these three big items are moving in good directions? I won't say that list is complete or even that everything on it will turn out to be high-profile, but here are some things I expect in the next year:

  • UDOT and Main Street are likely to constitute a big issue. The simplified explanation is that Main Street, or US 89, already is a major obstacle to having a coherent downtown neighborhood in American Fork, and UDOT seems poised to make the situation substantially worse in the next few years. This will test City officials' inclination and ability to lobby state government effectively more than anything has tested the new administration so far in this respect. Watch for some discussion of more traffic signals (or simply more traffic) on Main Street; moving US-89 to some other corridor (such as Pacific Drive/100 North); splitting US-89 between Main Street and Pacific Drive/100 North (with both becoming one-way); relocating the Main Street I-15 exit, and so forth.
  • Boundary issues with Pleasant Grove. The City has a relatively amicable relationship with Lehi in boundary matters, but a rather abusive relationship with Pleasant Grove, which seems to get its way despite boundary agreements to the contrary. There is talk of a new boundary agreement which would actually be adhered to by both municipalities, but there is potential for rancor in creating, approving, and enforcing such an agreement. This will continue to test the new administration's as yet unproven resolve and ability to be firm with Pleasant Grove.
  • Rental licensing and upgraded nuisance abatement laws will have a positive effect on the city but certainly won't please everyone. Both are likely to happen in 2007.
  • More long-term planning and a firmer sense of direction in the City's arts programs. A task force is being formed to address these topics.
  • Sidewalk improvements are much needed, but I'm not persuaded that the budget will have room for serious effort in this area next year. In fact, it might be best to wait until the streets are put back together in a neighborhood, after installation of the secondary water system, before tackling sidewalks in that neighborhood. Construction vehicles wreak havoc with sidewalks.

Please remember that my crystal ball was confiscated ages ago due to user incompetence, so I could easily be wrong about any or all of these. And, as always, comments are welcome, particularly other views of what we're likely to see -- or what you'd like to see -- from the City in the coming year.

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