Orem residents will get a chance in November to vote on whether the City Council can raise their property taxes to help pay for the financially troubled UTOPIA fiber-optic network.
When they step into the voting booth, however, there won’t be any mention of the long-controversial project on their ballots.
In a recent ruling, the Utah Supreme Court turned down a challenge by proponents of the referendum that sought to require Orem City to include language on the ballot that mentions the connection between the proposed property tax increase and the need to continue to fund UTOPIA.
Instead, voters will find only a generic statement that Orem needs to raise an additional $1.7 million a year for “municipal operations.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling was disappointing, said Elaine Andelin, an Orem resident who worked to get the referendum on the ballot. “I understand that the City Council is embarrassed about the financial fiasco that UTOPIA has caused, but I really did think that it should be mentioned.”
Ten years ago, 11 Utah cities created UTOPIA, or the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, to build a fiber-optic network capable of delivering light-speed Internet access to their residents. But mismanagement, bad luck and a lack of subscribers have left the network only 40 percent complete and saddled with huge debt that its member cities must pay.
Orem alone owes about $100 million and network construction within its city limits is only about a third complete. Of that amount, the city for 2012-2013 must pay $2.8 million to meet its UTOPIA debt obligation, or about 3.2 percent of the city’s $88 million budget.
In its ruling, the state’s top court noted that the Orem City Council had stated “that the need for the tax increase was a result of the UTOPIA bond obligation.” But it noted that referendum proponents failed to show that the ballot language drafted by the city — “for municipal operations” — is either untrue or “partial in some way.”
“In short, petitions [referendum supporters] argue that their proposed language would make the ballot title more true or more impartial,” the Supreme Court said.
The Supreme Court, though, went on to state that the city’s language met the requirements of state law. “We see nothing untrue or partial about the City Attorney’s summarizing the proposed tax increase’s purpose as ‘for municipal operations.’ ”
Wayne Burr, another Orem resident worked hard to get the referendum measure on the ballot, said the Supreme Court’s ruling is a challenge that will have to be overcome. “There are so many people ticked off about UTOPIA that it is no wonder the city doesn’t want to mention it on the ballot. So we’re just going to have to get the word out somehow. I know I’ll be going door-to-door.”