August 10, 2008
Townships Win Praise Because They Work Well
By Jay Evensen Deseret News
Generally speaking, people don't ask much from local government.They want police and fire departments to come quickly when needed. They want taxes to remain reasonable -- or at least not to spike like a decibel meter at a rock concert. And they want to be sure their neighbor's house can't be torn down and replaced by a strip club.
Safety, tax rates, planning and zoning -- boring and basic. Anything else a city can offer is so much fluff. Which is why the state's township law has worked so well in Salt Lake County.
It has worked so well, in fact, that I propose all the cities in the county be dissolved and every neighborhood turned into a township.
What has led me to such madness, you ask?
Well, for one thing, County Mayor Peter Corroon came by the editorial board this week along with people who had done research to determine how township residents feel about their fate in the scheme of things. The answer? Pretty good, thank you.
For another thing, I've been watching things here for more than 20 years now, and I can't think of a better way to solve a lot of problems at once.
The 2005 Legislature mandated the survey Corroon brought to us. The idea was to give lawmakers some help from popular will as they decide whether to renew the township law. If they do nothing, it will expire in 2010.
Judging by many of the responses, a lot of unincorporated residents may agree that will is popular, but they don't think he gets much respect from lawmakers. A lot of returned surveys said the process won't matter, because lawmakers will do what they want anyway.
So people are cynical about the Legislature. What else is new? They like townships, however. The Dan Jones & Associates poll that was part of the survey shows that, overall, 58.2 percent of unincorporated residents polled said they'd like to see things remain the same.
Which is bad news for the folks in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake, both of which have eyes on annexing some prime unincorporated areas. Right now they can't. One of the virtues of the township law is that it essentially sets a township's boundaries in stone.
Until the law came around, Salt Lake County was in the throes of municipal Darwinism. That is, the fittest neighborhoods were destined to survive as parts of cities, while the weakest were in trouble. But lest you misunderstand, the homes of the wealthy are not necessarily the fittest. In the local government jungle, tax revenue is red meat. Single-family homes, no matter how fancy, don't count for much. They cost more to service than they bring in. Commercial and industrial properties, on the other hand, are juicy feasts.
Because of the law, six large areas formed townships. Much of the rest of the county, on the other hand, continued as a patchwork quilt of urban madness. Unless you've lived here awhile and studied a map, you could drive down I-15 and never realize you have passed through a half a dozen cities, each with a separate police and fire department that may or may not be able to communicate with the others.
Which is why I say we should dissolve them all into a series of townships under the umbrella of a city-county consolidated government.
Think of the benefits. Not only would there be one police agency and one fire department, you wouldn't have to worry about your city offering tax breaks to lure a Wal-Mart or a Kmart (or a soccer stadium) from the city next door. No longer would I have to pay taxes to support both a county and a city recreation center located less than a mile from each other. Planning could be done on a countywide basis, with each township acting as an advisory board that keeps strip clubs off your street.
This isn't a unique idea. It was the recommendation of a distinguished panel the county commissioned 21 years ago to study how to prepare for growth.
It's also an idea that won't happen. The politicians who run cities will see to that. The best we can hope for is that state lawmakers allow the 165,000 people who live in unincorporated areas to continue as townships if they desire.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at deseretnews.com/blogs
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