An array of elected officials from cities in southwest Salt Lake County support a bill that would allow communities to strike out and create their own county without a majority vote from the county they would leave behind.
Representatives from Herriman, Riverton, West Jordan and Copperton say they don’t feel their interests are represented at the county level and are frustrated by what they see as a disproportionate lack of funding from the county when it comes to transportation and Zoo, Arts and Parks programming.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they want a “divorce.”
“I don’t believe that we take good negotiation tools off the table,” Herriman City Councilwoman Sherrie Ohrn said of the bill.
“It gives [us] some leverage to perhaps be heard,” agreed Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs.
As it stands, a proposed secession must be approved countywide by voters on both sides of the split. But Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, wants the decision to fall only to residents in the area considering independence.
“The bill seeks to honor that communities should be able to self-direct,” Coleman said during a committee hearing on her bill earlier this month, noting that there is a “robust history” in the United States of communities dividing for geographic and economic reasons dating back to the American Revolution.
HB93 won a favorable recommendation from the House Government Operations Committee on Feb. 1, over opposition from two Democrats, and has been stalled on the House floor since Feb. 12 as Coleman appears to be making some changes to the proposal. She declined an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune until she has a “firm direction.”
Though a number of lawmakers from the southwest portion of the county said they have had talks with Coleman, she told The Tribune previously that she’s not advancing the legislation to promote a particular split.
A state lawmaker from San Juan County has also expressed support for the bill after a landmark power shift that gave the southeastern Utah county its first majority Navajo and Democratic commission.
‘A way to not be the underdog anymore’
When Facebook picked New Mexico over West Jordan as the home for a massive $2.5 billion data center in 2016, the city’s mayor at the time blamed opposition from Salt Lake County and then-Mayor Ben McAdams for losing out on the coveted project.
Two years later, McAdams, a Democrat who now represents the area in Congress, vetoed zoning approval for a vast and controversial development project near Herriman after receiving widespread backlash from residents in the largely undeveloped southwest corner of the valley.
Olympia Hills, billed as a planned community similar to South Jordan’s Daybreak but with triple the density, made residents angry all on its own — but they also saw it as a microcosm of their broader sense of disenfranchisement. The cities began to mobilize.
“The southwest communities of West Jordan, South Jordan, Riverton, Bluffdale, Herriman and even Copperton Township, we’ve been meeting ever since the Olympia Hills issue,” said Staggs, the Riverton mayor. “Those municipalities have accounted for 70 percent of the population growth since 2000 in the county. And yet, if you look at the way that transportation funding has been allocated, we’ve probably seen around a quarter of it.”
Funding for improved east-west connectivity, for example, has been overlooked, Staggs argued — and he doesn’t think the county has been an active advocate for the southwest side in its requests to the state for funding.
While Coleman’s bill sprouted from these conversations, it has also widened dialogue about the problems the southwestern portion of the county faces in the wake of massive population growth and lagging infrastructure.
“The thought was, well, if we make our own county or if we can have that possibility to do so, then we can control the costs" of growth, said Sean Clayton, mayor of the Copperton Metro Township Council. “We seem to be the underdog, and so forming a new county would be a way to not be the underdog anymore.”
The Salt Lake County Council has unanimously opposed HB93. Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove told The Tribune that if there were a split, it would be “financially devastating” for both pieces.
“There are no winners in this scheme,” he said. “It’s ill-conceived.”
Though he welcomed more dialogue with the cities in the southwest portion of the county — which city leaders said has recently improved — Snelgrove, a Republican, said the county already does its best to distribute resources “as evenly and fairly as possible.”
“No matter what municipality people are from, they’re going to feel that they need more,” he said. “And when it comes to allocating county resources, we have to determine what’s in our best interests, what’s in the best interest of the people involved to be a fair and equitable dispersal of county resources, and that’s what we do.”
Newly inaugurated Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, echoed those concerns, arguing that the proposal “does not make sense.”
“It’s neither fiscally prudent nor logical to split counties anywhere, let alone one with the size, scope and complexity of Salt Lake County," she said in a written statement. "Discussions about splitting the county seem to be limited and aren’t reflective of the quality regional services Salt Lake County provides its partner cities and communities. Nonetheless, our door is always open to look at new ways we can strengthen partnerships and collaborations.”
The north and east portions of Salt Lake County tend to be more liberal, while the west and south ends are more conservative. That’s why some have wondered whether a county split would actually be motivated by anti-Democratic sentiments — an assertion southwestern leaders have dismissed.
“I don’t know that that really plays into it," said West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding. “People are people. Whether they’re liberal or conservative, I think it’s a matter of, wherever you live, doing what you think is best for the community.”
He did note, however, that Democrats tend to push for high-density housing, while conservatives like single-family homes — a tension often felt in the portions of the county where there is still land available for growth.
A ‘drastic’ change
The city officials who support Coleman’s bill said they would need more information before determining whether they would actually back a split and for now see it as a tool to open conversation.
“It’s always a good thing to be able to self-determine,” Staggs said. “Whether it gets actually exercised [or not] is a whole separate matter.”
But at least one resident of the southwest region has an idea for where a split should occur, if Coleman’s bill passes — state Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.
“Draw a line around the [Interstate] 215 and take the cities south of West Jordan, Midvale and Cottonwood Heights down to the Utah County line to make the new county,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “It would have a good mix of growth and existing development to make both counties viable and healthy. Dividing along the freeway doesn’t work [in my opinion].”
The statutory process for forming a new county is somewhat rusty, with century-old Daggett County the state’s youngest jurisdiction. (And some residents there have recently suggested the split was a mistake.) But the first step is a petition drive, followed by a special election if enough signatures are gathered.
The Legislature’s signoff would ultimately be required, Coleman has said, arguing that while the need for legislative approval isn’t spelled out in the law, it’s implied by a constitutional provision that classifies counties as “legal subdivisions of the state.”
As they voted against Coleman’s bill during its committee hearing, Democratic Reps. Patrice Arent of Millcreek and Jennifer Dailey-Provost of Salt Lake City worried about letting communities split off without giving those left behind a chance to weigh in on the changes, which might have a deep impact on their tax base and the financial health of their local government.
The potential disenfranchisement of those in the area that would be left behind was also a concern for the Utah Association of Counties, which has formally opposed the bill.
“If you want to create something that allows this drastic of a change to take the vote away from those people who are being left behind, let’s create a larger process,” Adam Trupp, the association’s chief executive officer, said during the bill’s committee hearing. “Let’s actually let people know what the cost is for the new county and what’s going to be left behind as the burden.”
Coleman has acknowledged the bill doesn’t address all the ins and outs of a potential county split. But Herriman’s Ohrn told The Tribune that the proposal’s simplicity in removing a sentence that she sees as undermining liberty is part of its appeal.
“You shouldn’t have to ask permission," Ohrn said, “if you’re in a situation that’s not working to say, ‘We need to leave this situation’ and you’re kind of held hostage by the other party.”