Sunday , March 11, 2018 - 5:00 AM
OGDEN — When Weber County voters approved the 0.25 percent Proposition One sales tax in November 2015, little did they know their officials would soon borrow $5.5 million in funding earmarked for roads and transit to cover outstanding costs incurred on a massive flood control project.
In addition to Proposition One revenue (estimated at $8 million per year), Weber County Comptroller Scott Parke said the county’s Transportation Development fund is also fed by $10 motor vehicle registration/renewal fees (approved by commissioners in 2007 for corridor preservation), along with three other 0.25 percent sales taxes — one of which voters approved in 2008 to fund fixed guideway and mass transit projects. According to the county’s 2018 projected budget, the transportation fund had a beginning balance of $42.8 million.
On Nov. 17, 2015, Weber County’s three commissioners — then Kerry Gibson, James Ebert and Matthew Bell — signed off on the interfund loan from the Transportation Development Fund to help pay outstanding costs for the Emergency Watershed Protection project built to protect western Weber County from devastating flooding such as those that occurred in early 2011.
That loan was approved in a public budget meeting and is scheduled to be paid back in increments of $550,000 plus interest over 10 years, with the final payment due by Oct. 31, 2025.
“It’s kosher and fairly common,” Jeremy Walker, local government manager for the Utah State Auditor’s Office, said of counties shifting money from one fund to another to avoid having to borrow from an outside source. State law simply requires well-defined terms, public approval and disclosure, and payback within 10 years.
While such practices are legal, some question whether they breach the public trust. Connor Boyack, founder and president of a free-market think tank in Lehi called Libertas Institute, took issue with those financial gymnastics.
“Voters should be very concerned when they are told one thing and yet another thing is done instead,” Boyack said. “Taxpayer dollars should not be treated as fungible accounts with which bureaucrats can loosely move money around as they deem proper. If taxpayers are being asked to pay for something, the money raised should be dedicated to what they were told it was for.”
After floods deluged homes and farms in west Weber County in 2011, the federal government came though with more than $14.8 million in grants to upgrade the way storm water travels to the Great Salt Lake. Combined with $4,325,000 from the state, the county still needed to come up with almost $7.3 million to cover final costs of the $26.4 million Emergency Watershed Protection project. In addition to the $5.5 million interfund loan, $1,781,035 was also used from the county’s general fund balance to pay off the three-phased project.
Gibson, who oversaw the project and owns land in the affected area, is convinced the dollars were well-spent in terms of long-term value.
“When I look back on what I’ve been able to accomplish for this county, I am so proud of this project, of the property value we saved, and the ability these people have to not have to worry about waking up under water one morning,” Gibson said.
Gibson also helped sell Proposition One in 2015, describing it as “the conservative thing to do . . . to pay our bills as we go, to pay them up front when we can, to make sure we are not passing that burden on to our children and grandchildren for years into the future.”
Ebert took office in January 2015 — after the project was well underway — and said certain infrastructure decisions had already been made that drove up total costs. He referred to the Phase 2 concrete channel bisecting one landowner’s farm. That property owner held out for several months in hopes of getting an earthen channel instead, but finally allowed work to proceed and reach completion in October 2015.
But in retrospect, Ebert questioned the push for the costly concrete channel and said the transportation fund should have been kept whole.
“Those types of things aren’t happening anymore,” Ebert said. “We now have a process to make sure that projects aren’t built out of phase, and aren’t built when the funding source is drying up. All this feeds into our community and economic development plan so that pet projects are a thing of the past.”
Weber County Treasurer John Bond pointed to the $45 million voter-approved library bond as funding that would be untouchable for any other purpose. But most funds are “pooled” into one large bank account and can be tapped for various purposes when it makes fiscal sense.
“Simply put, I try to find the right balance of investment and available cash to pay the bills,” Bond said. “During that time, commissioners came to me and asked how to pay for the storm water project. At that point in time, I was keeping some funds rather guarded, and I wanted to keep — in my books at least — the transportation fund separate.”
The choice, Bond said, came down to the county borrowing from itself or from an outside source. With an in-house loan, it avoided closing costs and also could assure a higher interest rate on repayments to the Transportation Development fund than what the county could gain by investing that money in U.S. Treasury notes or the Utah Public Treasurers' Investment Fund.
“If we borrowed from pooled cash, I wanted a really good paper trail and for the public to be aware,” Bond said. “We’d also have to have the ability to borrow those funds if transportation needed them immediately.”
For Gibson, he said it came down to trusting the county’s financial experts.
“We would have had the option to go to the private bond market, but as I remember, it was John (Bond’s) belief that this was a way to accomplish a goal and end up with a better outcome,” Gibson said.
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