Mayor’s bond for $58M in capital projects shrinking and getting sticky, new city council leadership elected

The Salt Lake City Council elected new leadership at their first meeting of 2022 last week. Dan Dugan (D6), a retired Navy pilot with a strong green streak currently working in manufacturing, was elected Chair in a unanimous vote. 

Addressing outgoing Chair Amy Fowler (D7), Dugan said “I appreciate the tone and the trajectory you set, and I want to continue that trajectory of improving the quality of life for our residents.”

Dugan is one of the supporters of the Rio Grande Plan, a community-sourced proposal to underground rail in west Downtown between South Temple and 900 S, 600 W and I-15, and return the Rio Grande Depot to a train station and transit hub.

Darin Mano (D5) was elected Vice Chair. Mano, an architect, told his colleagues “I’m here to serve,” making a pitch that he and Dugan would make a good leadership pair. 

“We know how to work together, and at the same time see problems in very different ways, and that will be productive for the council.”

Mano sees his priorities for the year as “Helping us sort through discussions of affordable housing and land use policy.”

Big capital projects bond

If there are any honeymoons in politics, they are short-lived. 

While Erin Mendenhall’s staff may have been sculpting their wish list for capital spending throughout 2021, a new council is already interrupting any clean lines to a vote on priorities. 

As much was evident in the Administration’s significant revisions (item 6 here) – removal of at least six projects and adjustments up and down for many more – in its most recent briefing material for the council. 

Before the January 4 meeting the council got wind that another revision was soon coming, and Chair Fowler obliged the Administration’s request to defer questions to a future meeting. 

Newly-elected D1 Council Member Victoria Petro-Eschler could not hold comment on some of the bond’s specifics, however.

“To have this money allocated to, like Pioneer Park, when during my tenure on Historic Landmarks we did a redesign and an investment in it, I’d like to understand how we decide the priorities” – signaling that the new council members are going to have a say in the bond project rankings.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall closed the aborted Capital Projects discussion apologetically with a “Yes, we would love to talk about the values and the prioritization, and yes, [next meeting] we’ll do it with more time.”

The City Council has full discretion if and how to proceed with the bond. Staff reminded them of the fiscal constraints – not only debt service being hardwired into each upcoming year’s budget, but with interest rates on the rise, the timing of the sales of the bonds being crucial for maximizing value to taxpayers.

The bond’s size has already shrunk from $58 to $55 million. Given rising construction and financing costs, the Administration has reduced the number of funded projects from 16 to 11. It is also suggesting a “design to budget” philosophy for some projects, like the Pioneer Park and Glendale water park, which has slipped from $10 to 8.6 million.

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.