Several Salt Lake County Council members are weighing blocking a deal to send $4.7 million to the new Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, with some bemoaning money-shuffling as the reason they’d stop the deal more than two months after it was tentatively OK’d.
The money would help with the new theater, which is moving from its current home in West Valley City to the east side of the valley financed largely by a $42.7 million bond from Sandy. The nonprofit theater also raised additional donations to build the state-of-the-art facility ahead of its scheduled September opening and has pledged to make the city’s bond payments.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has asked the county council to agree to send $4.7 million to Sandy for the project, money that city officials say isn’t needed for the theater’s launch but that would help improve the building.
But opponents on the council have mounted a last-minute campaign to tank the plan at a Tuesday meeting, citing what they said was a lack of openness in the process and other areas of need in the county that are better candidates for public money.
“It doesn‘t stand up to the test of how taxpayer money should be used.”
— Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove
“There’s been deception and lack of disclosure all along,” said Richard Snelgrove, the councilman who is leading the effort against the money transfer. “It doesn’t stand up to the test of how taxpayer money should be used.”
The Sandy proposal amounts to what Council Chairman Steve DeBry in June said was “taking money from Peter to pay Paul.”
If approved, the county will send Sandy $4.7 million from a sales-tax bond that was initially earmarked to build a parking structure at the new district attorney building in downtown Salt Lake City.
To pay for the parking structure, the county in June approved using $4.7 million from a pot of $47 million raised from sales taxes in Salt Lake County and designated for transportation projects throughout the valley. Proponents of the shift argued, and attorneys confirmed, that parking qualified as a transportation-related use of the funds.
“It‘s exactly the debate we had previously.”
— Councilwoman Jenny Wilson
While the council has twice voted on the measure, Snelgrove said there are possibly more worthy projects than the Sandy theater, such as building new treatment capacity or opening more jail beds to accommodate the ongoing “Operation Rio Grande” in the neighborhood surrounding the downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter.
The board of trustees for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, which Snelgrove also sits on, recently opted for service cuts rather than tax hikes despite warnings from staff who said money was badly needed to fix deteriorating roads. Snelgrove suggested the county could use the $4.7 million for that budget to help the portions of the county that are outside of cities.
The nine-member County Council had debated and narrowly approved moving forward with the funding shift to Sandy in early June, but a majority must sign off on the exact language before the deal is final.
Snelgrove is searching for four other members to marshal a majority vote against the agreement, and has support from fellow Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton and, likely, Democratic Councilman Sam Granato. DeBry, also a Republican, voted against the framework in June and said he’s leaning that way heading into Tuesday’s meeting.
“This is not an indictment on the arts or the Hale Centre Theatre,” DeBry said. “The bottom line for me is what’s the best use of public funds and best use of tax dollars?”
Likely to support the theater funding deal is Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who noted the council already debated and passed the framework and that it should support arts and culture whenever it has the money to do so.
“One of the important things that a community needs to do is continue to invest in the arts,” Wilson said. “I think one of the reasons that we’ve had really successful economic growth and prosperity in our community is we continue to invest in it.”
“It’s exactly the debate we had previously,” Wilson said.
Republican Councilman Max Burdick, of Sandy, also said he was heading into Tuesday’s meeting in favor of the measure but open to discussion. He also noted he’d never heard of the council backing out of an agreement after initially approving one.
Calls to council members Jim Bradley, Arlyn Bradshaw, and Michael Jensen went unreturned Monday. Those three joined Wilson and Burdick in voting to approve the framework in June.
McAdams’ office pushed back on Snelgrove’s characterization that the process was opaque, saying the council openly debated it.
“For a long time, Salt Lake County has had the responsibility for funding arts and culture throughout the community,” McAdams spokeswoman Michelle Schmitt said. “We’ve done so in Salt Lake City, we’ve done it in Taylorsville and it’s time to invest in the south valley as well.”
While backing out of the deal would be an unusual move for the council, the theater is set to open regardless, with a sold-out performance of the musical “Forever Plaid” on Sept. 1.
“There’s not a fundraising gap on Hale Centre Theatre at all, they have far exceeded their fundraising goals,” said Nicole Martin, a Sandy spokeswoman. “If you have more money you can do more things.”