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Thursday, October 23, 2008
Notes on the Bond Information Meeting

Points of interest about each bond issue, the meeting itself, and the mostly intelligent, mostly well-informed residents who attended.

I had another obligation in town, so I missed the first 100 minutes or so of last evening's informational meeting on American Fork's five proposed bond issues, which are on the November 4 ballot. This means that I was there for the last hour or so of a fairly long meeting. The Mayor, the entire City Council, and numerous City staffers were present. As for the residents, it was standing room only. I was content to stand on the staircase a couple of steps below floor level on one side.

Several people helped me with notes, comments, and impressions about the part of the meeting I missed. (Thank you!) If you have some similar thoughts that you would like to share, do so, and I'll post them, as the fine print on every blog post here says, as long as they are "readable, relevant, civilized, [and] substantive responses . . . , regardless of position."


We'll move straight to the substance of the meeting; I won't bemuse you with an account of the wrangling, mostly behind the scenes, over the meeting's format and agenda. It's more or less interesting, but I'm trying to keep this long account as short as possible.

Mayor Heber Thompson began with a PowerPoint presentation touching a few issues. He explained that the City prioritizes its projects and activities by consulting the General Plan, hearing public input, and considering its strategic plans. (Someone privately wondered to me if strategic plans actually exist. I haven't seen them. But even thinking about strategic planning would be a step forward for American Fork City.) He explained that the City's bond rating is good -- as good as a city American Fork's size can have, I'm told -- and that the City's cash reserves are in the legally mandated range, if slightly less than their ideal amount. He suggested that voters consider the proposals in terms of the validity of the needs, whether they can wisely be postponed, whether a voter's family can afford the tax burden, how likely it is that costs will be much higher later, and whether the benefit justifies the sacrifice.

He also discussed the impact of all the proposed bond issues on property taxes. He cited his own 1977 tax bill in Endicott, NY -- $2100 for a $75,000 home -- which is several times higher than rates for comparable homes in Utah. (This is consistent with my experience in a neighboring county of New York.) His point seemed to be that there is plenty of room to raise our property taxes. This reportedly went over with a thud, which is what happened when another official made a similar point later.

Lost in the New York comparison is this fact (which is almost literally true): When I lived in New York, you could sit on your front porch and watch the economy go by on its way out of state, largely because of high tax rates.

City Chief of Staff Melanie Marsh followed the Mayor with another PowerPoint presentation, which reportedly looked a lot like the presentation she used in an earlier hearing. I critiqued it briefly at the time.

After all this, each bond issue was taken up in turn, with some discussion from staff and then two residents speaking briefly, by prior arrangement, one for and one against each bond in turn. Later, there was an hour or so of open questions and other discussion.

Note that I'm not attempting to convey comprehensive information, just points of interest. For more detailed information, one of your best sources is MFCC's blog. (The previous link is to my post that links to all of MFCC's recent posts on the bonds.)

#1: The Roads Bond

City Planner Rod Despain said of the 1120 North portion of this proposal, "This bond is a referendum on financing. It is not a measure of whether these roads should come off the general plan."

MFCC learned the other day (then reported) the following about the 50 South project in this proposed bond issue. Note especially the portion I have bolded:

This project has been estimated at $4 million in 2009 dollars. This estimate includes everything from replacing mailboxes and utilities to laying asphalt.

Of that $4 million, $1.06 million is already available through federal funds distributed by the Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG). At the time this award was made, the City's portion of the cost (the match) was to be 6.33 percent, or about $72,000.

I do not know the year of the award, and cannot comment on what financial predicaments led American Fork to procrastinate until inflation had driven costs up by an additional $3 million. I can say that American Fork has gone back to MAG to ask for additional funding, and the answer, unofficially given, was that MAG would consider the City's request if the City would raise an additional $1 million.

Hence, $1 million of Bond 1 will go toward the widening of 50 South in hopes that MAG will then award the additional $2 million necessary for completion.

It appeared to some at the meeting that neither the Mayor nor the most of the Council was aware that the $2 million MAG grant is only a possibility, not an accomplished fact. Residents who apparently had read MFCC's blog were able to extract this important detail from City staff. There was considerable displeasure from the residents upon learning this and observing that it was news to the Mayor and other officials.

Some of the opposition to finishing 1120 North reasonably argues that Highland is not pulling its own weight in moving traffic east and west. It was reported at this meeting that Highland has a bond issue on the November ballot to upgrade Canal Street (just north of the once-controversial 9600 North) to some sort of collector status. I was unable to confirm this at the Highland City web site.

A resident who lives on 700 North, which currently takes much of the traffic that should be using a completed 1120 North, noted that many residents of American Fork, not just Highland and Alpine, live north of 1120 North.

It was reported that the section of 900 West that this bond would not improve will, it is hoped, be funded in the near future by developers of property along that section of the road.

#2: Art Dye Park

This I report without comment: The prearranged speaker against this bond issue stood up and said that she was just there to convey her husband's opinion, since he couldn't be there.

Someone asked if the Art Dye Park improvements could be paid for with revenues from recreation programs. The answer is no. Not explained in the meeting was that municipal arts and recreation programs, among others, nationwide are typically expected to defray their own operational costs, but they cannot also fund the creation of their facilities.

The question arose, how long will we be paying for these improvements if the proposed bond issue passed? The Mayor said, 20 years. The crowd said, the mailed information says 22 years. The Mayor said, no, it doesn't. A veritable sea of those documents appeared in the crowd's raised hands, and they said, yes, it does.

It really does. (Oops.) After some confusion, it was explained that the bond period is 20 years, but the bond issue says 22 years in order to allow some flexibility in the timing of the issue.

#3: Cemetery Expansion

The City has a specific piece of land in mind for expanding the American Fork Cemetery. We learned in a previous hearing that the engineering study to determine the land's suitability for cemetery use was not yet complete; I groused about this then. That study is now complete. The major issue in these cases is the water table. For example, in the area of the city between I-15 and Utah Lake, the water table is too high to be suitable for burials. There is a spring on the proposed property, but there are no major engineering obstacles to using the land as a cemetery.

More than one resident at the meeting mentioned to me later that some City staff members seemed ill-prepared to answer questions on several topics, including a cost breakdown for this project and a list of required improvements.

Someone asked, for how many years will this 20-year bond answer the demand for cemetery plots? Chief of Staff Melanie Marsh said 15 years. The notion of a 20-year debt for a 15-year supply didn't please the audience, but the answer is more complicated than this.

(I have heard that the real estimate from the Cemetery management is that the land will provide about a 25-year supply of plots, and that Marsh says 15 years because she is trying to be cautious and avoid lawsuits. Caution is admirable to a point, I suppose, but this is so much caution that it moves the numbers from the black to the red side of the ledger and makes the City look foolish.)

Someone asked if the new lots couldn't be priced higher to help pay for the next expansion. Councilman Dale Gunther actually suggested this a couple of years ago; it seemed pretty novel then. It may be a good idea, and it now appears to have the renewed attention of at least some of the Council.

One resident asked if there is a moral obligation for the City to provide a cemetery. It's a good question. In the East cemeteries tend to be private, and people still manage to die and be buried. One has to think that, if the public supply went away, the private sector might step in. A radical thought, letting the private sector meet the need . . .

#4: Trails and Open Space

Residents asked again, in connection with this proposed bond issue, how the costs break down. They didn't get answers this time, either. City staff resisted providing this information, perhaps out of caution, even though everyone understands that the numbers would be estimates, not guarantees. Whatever the truth was, the appearance was that the City hasn't done its homework.

One fellow insisted on expressing his displeasure for the Center Street Trail at considerable length. When he was told that the Center Street Trail was not part of the proposed bond issue, he . . . kept talking.

#5: 560 West

There has long been talk of pushing 560 West south across the railroad, to connect with Pacific Drive at a location which now seems much too close to Pacific Drive's intersection with State Road. Some local residents are worried about turning 560 West into a race track; others are concerned about serious traffic problems, particularly at 400 West and Pacific Drive.

There is a requirement that two railroad crossings must be closed for every crossing that is opened. At first we has Ms. Marsh saying that there has not been a decision which two will be closed. This raises a serious question about how the City can estimate the costs of the project without knowing what the project is. Then, a little later, we had City Engineer Howard Denney explain, with maps and diagrams, that one of the two was closed a few years back, and there is a plan for the other one. One understands residents' frustration at this; it's rather late in the process for staff and officials not to be on the same page.

One wonders -- actually, many wonder -- if the City should upgrade the crossing and intersection at 400 West instead. Apparently, there has been no serious consideration of this alternative, which may be considerably cheaper, and perhaps even safer.

There were some complaints about important information on this project being omitted from the eight-page mailer.

I arrived at the meeting during the discussion of the fifth proposed bond issue. It was followed by an open question/answer/comment period.

Notes and General Impressions

The general attitude among the many residents present seemed to be that most or all of the projects seem worthy and important, but this is not the time for higher taxes or more municipal debt. I heard this repeatedly in the time I was there; others said that it came up many times before that.

I was pleased to see the Mayor still getting some grief for turning in a (roughly) 50 percent proposed property tax increase to the County earlier this year. He explained again that the City had to add up all the things it might want to do and report the necessary increase to the County. This doesn't seem entirely accurate, but I won't say he doesn't believe it.

Several residents mentioned to me, in or after the meeting, that some of the City staff involved in the meeting seemed amazingly ill-prepared. One gentleman said afterwards, "If I had someone like that on my staff, I'd fire their butt." I'm not going to name names in this connection, but he was not referring to City Engineer Howard Denney or City Planner Rod Despain, who distinguished themselves as usual. They, with one or two other diligent staffers, lingered downstairs long after the meeting was over, explaining maps and diagrams, answering questions, and generally making themselves useful and appreciated.

Councilman Gunther gave a nice speech about how it's better to put general obligation bonds to a vote than to use more expensive revenue bonds, which don't require a public vote. This lets the people decide their priorities and whether to increase their own taxes, and it lets the public participate more fully in the process of deciding what sort of community we will have. I think he may be right, to a point, but putting five bond issues on one ballot looks like overusing a good thing and a disinclination on leaders' part to set priorities.

A man who has lived in American Fork for almost four decades took the podium to say that, despite his concerns about the bond issues, the current City Council is "the most conservative, most honest City Council" he has seen in that time, and he's worked with a lot of them. I suspect he's right, despite the current bond issue debacle.

One man, who apparently wants reams of information on the proposed bond issues, complained that he cannot make an informed decision with the information the City has provided. The City was quick to offer him more, while also noting that there had been complaints that the recent eight-page mailer was too long, and therefore too expensive. You can't please all the people all the time. In any case, do not complaints about inadequate information suggest that the City itself, not to mention the voters, could have managed one or two bond issues at a time much better than they are handling five of them? (The pressurized irrigation bond and the subsequent project have been handled very well, in terms of public information and participation.)

One lesson of all this for the City, one hopes, is that the assurance, "It's up to you whether we raise your taxes to do any of these things" doesn't play well with many residents, at least not now. Another lesson might be, don't tell the people how much you could still raise our taxes. The Mayor did it earlier; Councilman LeBaron did it in a previous meeting; and Councilman Gunther excited a lot of resident displeasure again when he did the same thing, by telling us how much higher the City's debt limit is than its current debt. (I don't remember the numbers, but we're at less than half the limit.)

Someone complained about the "special interests" behind these proposed bond issues. Would that be people who like parks? People who drive?

Nicely Done, Residents

I lingered for quite a while downstairs, talking with residents and members of the Council. I noticed that even residents who had disagreed with each other in the meeting were friendly and civil with each other after the meeting. And numerous residents who had objected to something in the meeting made a point to talk to the individual Council members who lingered. In some cases they wanted to get more information or clarify an opinion, but they also almost always expressed appreciation for the Council members' service. Not every hearing or town meeting in American Fork draws such a classy crowd, but this one did. Intelligence and civility were both very much in evidence in the cheap seats last night, and that is good for government.

Wendy Hickman comments (10/24/08) (quotations from the post above are indented):

After all this, each bond issue was taken up in turn, with some discussion from staff and then two residents speaking briefly, by prior arrangement, one for and one against each bond in turn.

We were part of one group asked to give a "con" position on the first bond. After arranging for a speaker, who spend a considerable amount of time preparing, the meeting started with an immediate move to abandon the pre-prepared comments. That motion was quickly seconded. I'm not sure why we were asked to participate, only to be shut out of the agenda. Ultimately our speaker did make his points, but had to do it as part of the questions following the bond.

One other note: My understanding is that Highland *might* bond for their collector road next year. All I know is that it isn't happening currently.

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