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Corroon's legacy: Scandal-free county but cuts and controversy

Published January 2, 2013 5:57 pm

He says his guiding principle over 8 years has been doing the "right thing … for the citizens."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Peter Corroon became mayor in 2005 of a Salt Lake County government reeling from scandals involving nepotism and misuse of county vehicles.

It's been scandal-free ever since.

Not that there haven't been difficult and controversial times.

Getting run over by state officials, for example, after Corroon said the county would not contribute $35 million in public funding toward construction of Real Salt Lake's private soccer stadium in Sandy. Then-Gov. Jon Huntsman and the Legislature wanted the stadium built, so in 2007 they took the money out of the county's share of hotel-tax revenues for a 20-year period to do it.

Then there were the angry calls about the police fee imposed in unincorporated areas in 2010 to fund the Unified Police Department, the first of three county agencies to go independent in a trend toward the delivery of services on a regional basis (police, fire, sanitation).

And, finally, there was Corroon's initiative to raise 2013 property taxes to pay for countywide services and the library system, both cut to the bone by the ravages of recession and the steady erosion of inflation since the last tax increase in 2001.

While raising taxes was hardly the way Corroon wanted to leave office, or to be remembered after eight years of service, he felt he had to — that it was the right thing to do.

"I wasn't going to leave the county in a mess, whether it was for [Mayor-elect] Ben McAdams or [Republican nominee] Mark Crockett," Corroon said recently. "I wanted to make sure Salt Lake County was in good shape and providing the services our citizens enjoy."

The same principle influenced his position in the soccer stadium saga.

"I'm a great soccer fan and think Real Salt Lake has done a great job and are a great part of our community," he said. But Corroon just couldn't accept the team's revenue projections, particularly about the stadium becoming a major concert venue, so he said no to county participation in funding the $110 million facility.

"I still think we made the right decision," Corroon said, and that "the state overreached on what should have been a local decision. That was wrong. The state doesn't like the federal government doing it to them, but they're more than willing to step on the toes of local government.

Clarity • "At the end of the day, I ask myself what's the right thing to do for the citizens," he added. "That usually helped me clarify my decision."

That penchant for being a high-minded mayor of the masses — from promoting programs for refugees to appointing numerous women to high-ranking positions in his administration — earned Corroon heartwarming accolades as he wrapped up his tenure atop the second-largest government institution in Utah, next to the state itself.

"He cares immensely about people," said one of those women, Erin Litvack, who headed the Department of Community Services the past eight years. "He wants to provide opportunities for people, to lend a helping hand so they can take care of themselves. He has integrity beyond all reproach."

Maybe too much, joked County Councilman Randy Horiuchi on Dec. 11 when the council passed a resolution honoring Corroon and gave him a standing ovation.

"I've never met a person with a straighter and more accurate moral compass than Mayor Corroon," Horiuchi said. "I tried my best to get [him] to stray to get some things done and I never could."

Praise came from both sides of the political aisle. While that's to be expected in a time of transition, the Republican councilmen seemed sincere in their expressions of affection for the soft-spoken 48-year-old with a dry-yet-quick wit.

"When you came into office there was a lot of turmoil," said Michael Jensen, a councilman since 2001. "You did a fantastic job. ... You were a true statesman, a gentleman and a good man."

Added current Council Chairman David Wilde: "I particularly appreciated how you tried to be fiscally responsible and that's been difficult to do these past three to four years."

In fact, the recent economy has been as bad as any time since the Great Depression. Through hiring freezes, and cuts to wages, benefits and programs, along with basic scrimping all around, the mayor and council steered the county through the worst of the Great Recession without a tax increase — until now, when Corroon said the inevitable could be avoided no longer and, try as it might, the council couldn't find significant ways to trim his budget proposal.

"Nobody likes a tax increase," he said, adding that if it is any consolation to his critics, "if I raise taxes on citizens, I'm raising them on myself, too."

Corroon's future • What he'll be doing when those higher taxes appear on his bill next November was uncertain heading into the holidays. Corroon has been talking with officials of a high-tech company but also has prospects of returning to his roots in real-estate development.

He won't be going to meetings and gatherings from early morning until late at night, as he has almost daily for eight years. These are places where he thrived, his easy-going nature mixing well with people he'd encounter at senior centers and park openings, or at meetings with staff members of the county's countless operations.

"I love being near staff and I love to recognize them for their accomplishments," Corroon said. "I like people. These are people who made me look good over the years."

"Sometimes I spent too much time [on the job], but you have to," he added. "In a sense, I had an extended family of 1 million people."

But he also has a family of his own and wants to focus more on his wife, Amy, and their children, Sophie, Peter Jr. and James. The kids were preschoolers when Corroon took office, but are now fast approaching their teenage years. Being part of that with them is important to him.

So is the legacy he leaves.

Corroon is proud of having worked with the criminal justice system to develop alternatives to incarceration, particularly for people whose problems stem from mental health or substance abuse.

He cited an environmental record that includes the preservation of more open space and the development of parks and trails, installation of a large array of solar-power panels on the Salt Palace Convention Center roof, weekly curbside recycling for 80,000 homes, a downsized fleet of more fuel-efficient vehicles and more urban farming projects.

During this tenure, the county built new libraries, senior centers and recreation centers. Its flood control crews kept damage to a minimum in the high-runoff years of 2010 and '11, while the Health Department fought off the swine flu. Euthanasia at county animal shelters sunk to next to none. More attention was paid to emergency preparedness. The county's arts and culture infrastructure grew.

As a low-key guy, Corroon also pointed to the importance of creating a department of administrative services to coordinate the county's internal workings. "It's not flashy, but it helps government work better," he said. And anything that helps Salt Lake County maintain its AAA credit rating, one of only 30 counties nationwide to have that elite status, is valuable.

"I hope not to be remembered going out as proposing a tax increase, even if it was the right thing to do," Corroon said. "I hope I simply am remembered as someone who left Salt Lake County better than I found it."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg