Utah Legislature makes it harder to become cities, says Weber, Cache communities

With the 2024 Utah legislative session in the rearview, the dream of incorporating their communities into cities is still alive, but there are also reasons for some of those Utahns to worry.

For a community like Benson in Cache County, a bill approved by the legislature could stick organizers with a huge bill and stop their campaign in its tracks.

In Ogden Valley, some Weber County residents are pleased that another bill failed but are hurrying to complete their incorporation steps before the process can be changed.

For a city to incorporate, a study must be done to determine if the city would be financially viable. The “feasibility study” must show that a prospective city would have a 5% surplus in its budget when comparing the tax dollars a city would generate to the costs of becoming a city and maintaining the local government.

Initially, SB 252, introduced by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would have retroactively increased that surplus from 5% to 10% — a change that worried incorporation organizers.

Nick Dahlkamp, one of the organizers behind Ogden Valley’s incorporation, said most prospective cities wouldn’t be able to hit that mark. He also worried the change would mean communities would have to redo steps they’ve already completed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes above Pineview Reservoir in Eden on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

McCay later dropped the retroactive clause in the bill and it passed the Senate but failed to receive a vote in the House in the waning hours of the 2024 session.

“We were very, very pleased that was the outcome,” Dahlkamp said. He added a number of people in the Ogden Valley voiced their opposition to the bill, and lawmakers noted while in session they had been hearing from irate constituents.

While he was happy to see the bill fail, Dahlkamp said he still worries about the same bill being proposed in 2025 or other changes to the process.

“They’re not done,” he said of state lawmakers.

For Dahlkamp and other organizers, time is not on their side. It’s still possible for them to complete the necessary steps to get the Ogden Valley incorporation vote on the 2024 general election ballot. If they don’t meet those deadlines, Dahlkamp says they risk another legislative session where lawmakers could again try to tinker with the process.

But for another northern Utah community, a bill awaiting Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature could price them out of the process before it begins.

SB 201 is particularly worrisome legislation for Matt Fuller, the lead incorporation sponsor for Benson.

If signed into law, SB 201 would require petitioners to pay for their own feasibility study at the cost of thousands of dollars.

Currently, the Utah lieutenant governor’s office pays for feasibility studies. The office is required by law to find an outside consultant to carry out the study if a community meets the prerequisites. If a city were to incorporate, that city government would pay the lieutenant governor’s office back over time. If the city would not incorporate, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office would absorb that cost.

SB 201 would shift that cost to the incorporation sponsor, meaning if a feasibility study found a city wouldn’t be financially viable, the organizers would lose their own money.

(Jeff Dahdah | KSL) Benson, located in Cache County, has been home to the Johnson family farm for the past 150 years and hope their children will become the fifth-generation farmers. But they must withstand pressure to sell to developers and cut costs and water for the Great Salt Lake.

In a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 7, the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said the shifting cost would be a significant policy change. He noted that if a city did successfully incorporate, the city government would pay back sponsors for that cost.

Vickers said the policy shift would ensure that incorporation sponsors have “skin in the game.” The bill was unanimously approved in committee and later approved in both the Senate and House.

Fuller said SB 201 would place a heavy financial burden on sponsors.

“We were just told yesterday that a feasibility study is going to cost in the realm of $20,000 to $25,000,” Fuller said in a phone interview. “Where in the world would that (money) come from?”

In December, the lieutenant governor’s office approved Benson’s request for a study, but the state has a 90-day window to find and hire an outside consultant to carry it out.

Gov. Spencer Cox must sign or veto bills by March 21 and Fuller said he hopes Cox doesn’t sign the bill.

Fuller doesn’t understand the legislature’s desire to make it harder for smaller communities like Benson to incorporate into their own cities. He said that regardless of a state lawmaker’s reasoning, the incorporation bills proposed in recent months make it harder for communities to incorporate into cities.

“If we believe in small government,” Fuller said, “why would we make it so hard for a small community, or any community for that matter, to create their own government?”

Benson organizers are eagerly awaiting word on finding a consultant to start their feasibility study. Typically, studies take around four months to complete.

But Fuller worries that even if the study is underway before the May 1 effective date on SB 201, he and other organizers could be sent the bill halfway through.

For Dahlkamp and Ogden Valley organizers, the clock is also ticking. Organizers are in the process of adjusting proposed city boundaries, taking into account how the nearby town of Huntsville wants to annex more land into its city limits.

Once the boundaries are finalized and the lieutenant governor’s office confirms all requirements are met including the 5% budget surplus, there are more steps, like a second public meeting to discuss boundaries and more signature gathering. Petitioners must get signatures from 10% of the proposed city’s registered voters, and those signatures must come from multiple voting precincts within the proposed city.

If those requirements are met at least 65 days before the 2024 general election, which is Nov. 5, the incorporation will be on the ballot. Voters will then answer two questions: whether to become a city and, if so, what type of city government they want.

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