Inland Port Authority’s budget, of more than $40 million, includes lots of spending with little detail

No line items note how much the port plans to invest in its transloading facility, Intelligent Crossroads Network or other big-dollar projects in the coming year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City. Directly south is the future site of the transloading facility, which will be the heart of the inland port, as seen on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The Utah Inland Port Authority board has approved its budget for the coming year, but details about how it will spend tens of millions of dollars in public revenue remain scarce.

The four-page document includes nearly $11 million in general fund expenses and $32 million in capital expenses. Line item descriptions in the budget, however, are vague.

The general fund will cover operating expenses, with $2.6 million to pay the port authority’s 13 employees, $658,500 for office supplies, $500,000 for legal fees and $1.5 million for “professional services.”

Under the capital fund expenditures, the port authority has earmarked $6.1 million for “publicly owned infrastructure and improvements” and another $5 million will go to “site improvements or preparation costs.” Around $2.1 million will go to “property site development.” Just over $1 million will go to “management fees” and $1 million will fund a master plan study.

The port authority plans to transfer more than $11 million to its infrastructure fund as well, which provides loans for building projects, although the budget doesn’t specify any projects. Another $2.3 million will transfer to the port’s property tax differential fund, but the budget doesn’t include any information about how that money will be spent either.

The inland port will also pay $600,000 to Salt Lake City for affordable housing, as required by the Utah Legislature.

The inland port authority’s fiscal year begins July 1 — this Friday. Board members Miles Hansen; Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton; and newly sworn-in member Abby Osborne unanimously approved the fiscal 2022-2023 budget at their meeting Thursday morning.

But members did not appear to entirely agree with all the port authority’s projected spending.

Schultz called into question “$75,000 set aside for lobbyists” — which is apparently a portion of the $1.5 million budgeted for professional services — given that two of the board’s five voting members are legislators and a third, Osborne, works as the Utah House’s chief of staff.

“We have pretty good relationships,” Schultz said. “I question the need for lobbyists at this point in time.”

Stevenson said this likely won’t be the only time board members will review and adjust the budget in coming months.

“We have the authority to move forward at any time [to] realign deck chairs, if you will,” he said.

Public voices frustrations over scant information

Board members fielded a handful of public comments during the hearing, with most of them decrying the lack of specifics listed in the budget document.

“The documents the public gets about the budget are so sketchy,” Deeda Seed, with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, told the board. “It’s still extremely hard for us to know what you’re intending to do with the money.”

In response to the feedback, the board requested staffers provide commenters additional information about some of the budget items.

The $1 million master plan study will help the port authority “envision what the infrastructure and goods movement, in and out of the port area, could look like into the future,” said the port’s executive director, Jack Hedge, who will soon transition into a new role as president of the port.

“We’re not the major property owner in the area,” Hedge continued. “We don’t have permitting and land planning authority. But it is a way to give input.”

Board members also asked staffers to explain the $658,500 earmarked for office expenses. Deputy Executive Director Jill Flygare explained that line item would pay for an “office build-out” at the port authority’s headquarters.

“It will go back to a normal level in fiscal year 2024,” Flygare said.

The port’s current revenue and previous payments

While detail about spending is lacking, the budget has some insight into where the port authority gets its money.

The general fund revenue for the coming year came from a $3.2 million legislative appropriation, $1.1 million in “management fees” and carryover from previous years.

Capital revenue mostly came from $7.5 million in property tax differential — income that is still in dispute due to a Salt Lake City lawsuit awaiting a decision from the Utah Supreme Court — and a $11.5 million “transfer” from either the Utah Department of Transportation, the inland port’s public infrastructure district, or both.

The port authority received a $2.4 million federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant as well, which Flygare said will pay for “costs associated with truck parking.”

Those with questions about how the port spent its funds in the past year, however, won’t find many answers in the budget document.

About $5 million went to “site improvements or professional costs” — the same amount earmarked for the coming year — and $1.6 million funded “publicly owned infrastructure and improvements.”

Just under $11 million transferred to the port’s property tax differential and infrastructure funds.

Another $8 million went to “acquisition of property,” although there are no funds allocated for property acquisitions in the coming year. The Salt Lake Tribune previously reported port authority apparently offered more than $10 million for a vacant lot owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That bid appears to have ballooned the price and derailed plans by a short line operator to move its train traffic out of neighborhoods in Salt Lake City’s west side.

The Tribune also previously reported the port authority issued a $2 million no-bid contract to QuayChain, an obscure California-based company, in August 2021 to build its Intelligent Crossroads Network.

In addition, the port authority has paid nearly $3 million in rent to real estate investment firms Gardner Batt and The Boyer Co. for a vacant lot. The port plans to construct a multimillion-dollar transloading facility there, possibly in the coming months. Gardner and Boyer appear to have received a no-bid contract to build the facility as well, which the port authority will then either buy or lease.