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Monday, February 8, 2016

Is the Equestrian Park a good use of taxpayer dollars?

We have switched to a new blog format and you can find the most recent post about the Equestrian Park here.

What should be the future of the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park? The taxpayers of Salt Lake County subsidize the Equestrian Center in South Jordan $900,000 per year. Is that the highest and best use of this area and our taxpayer dollars? During the budget session last December I asked that our Community Services Department, which oversees the Equestrian Park, to prepare cost alternatives for the Equestrian Center.

The Equestrian Center has been steadily losing more and more money every year. The County realized a few years ago that something needed to change since taxpayers’ operating subsidy was increasing, so it awarded a contract to the very capable SMG management company. SMG currently operates the Salt Palace, South Towne Expo Center, and several equestrian centers around the country. Even after almost two years under SMG’s management, the park is still on pace to lose millions more.

There are significant issues with the park that are beyond SMG’s control. There is a serious concern with deferred maintenance. Over the next five years infrastructure investments from $3.5 to $4.5 million will be needed, including new stalls. As if the millions in deferred maintenance isn’t enough, millions more are needed for the construction of a new building on site to make the park a more attractive place to hold events.

Whenever I vote on anything that comes before the council or evaluate a County program, I ask myself, “Is this the proper role of government?” Our parks and recreation department is there to promote health and well-being for the residents of Salt Lake County, which is a worthy cause. We try to provide recreational activities to help keep our community active and healthy. We don't provide opportunities for every person's individual recreational preferences. What about water sports? What about snowmobiling? There are plenty of fun recreational activities, but taxpayers shouldn't and can't fund everything. We put tax dollars into amenities that are in high public demand, make fiscal sense, and encourage families to have healthy lifestyles. That is something we will need to look at as we explore options for this facility.

Parks preserve open space and are visited hundreds of thousands of times a year and can be used by all of Salt Lake County’s 1.1 million residents. Our golf courses are some of the best managed in the state and, in addition to preserving open space, turn a profit. The County subsidizes parks, on average, $5,000 per year per acre. The Equestrian Park is a revenue generator, but is being subsidized at $7,500 per acre. That is 50 percent more than the County subsidizes an acre of a public park.

Some may say that we should just invest in the Equestrian Park so that it will turn a profit. We will be looking at this, but preliminary numbers show we would have to put millions into the facility. Denver has a great Equestrian Center. Some have said we should invest in something similar for Salt Lake County. Denver put over $800 million dollars into their center.

I've had people say that the Equestrian Center provides other economic benefits that we just aren't considering - hotels, restaurants, shopping. We will have the economic impact measured in the coming months, but preliminary studies show there is a neglible economic impact. We are continuing to explore this.

Whenever an organization or program is overseen by Salt Lake County or any government we must continually review what the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars is and let that guide our response. I know the Equestrian Park is an important place for some of our Salt Lake County residents. We are looking for some answers and will be anxious to see the upcoming recommendations by the Mayor's staff in April. They will give us several scenarios and the fiscal impact of each. Personally, I will be doing all I can to keep this area open space. We will have more info in coming months.

Click here to read the Deseret News article on this issue

Fox 13 coverage of the Equestrian Park

Here is the budget line item showing the $900,000 subsidy:

Some people didn't believe that the Equestrian Park was really losing so much money, so I've included the actual 2016 budget:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Urban County Caucus

Several months ago I was talking with some colleagues about the role of Salt Lake County within the Utah Association of Counties (UAC). This conversation continued at the annual UAC conference when I asked county commissioners from Davis, Weber, and Utah counties if they would be willing to meet as a group of urban counties to discuss unique challenges that come with larger populations. They accepted my invitation and several other counties also wanted to be involved – Washington, Cache, Uintah, Tooele and Summit.

Two months later UAC and Salt Lake County hosted our first Urban County Caucus meeting on January 20. Governor Herbert attended and even brought Lt. Governor Spencer Cox with him. We had the opportunity to talk about criminal justice issues, Medicaid expansion, and economic development. Representative Eric Hutchings also attended to talk about the Justice Reinvestment Act. I was elected as chair of the new Urban County Caucus and will be continuing conversations with these counties so we can learn from each other.

UAC has been a valuable partner with counties in the past and with all 29 counties as members, it’s a great place to speak with a unified voice when fighting for a particular issue. But because Utah has such a diverse geography, it means that each of the counties have different concerns as well. For example, Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, and Utah Counties have very little public lands (with the exception of some National Forest lands), but to the south, east, and west of us, virtually all of the state is owned by the federal government. Those counties don’t have the same criminal justice, public safety, transportation, and growth issues that the larger counties face. While our issues may be different, it’s nice that we can support each other and speak with a unified voice at the Legislature.

Here is the SL Tribune article on this event.

I also interviewed with Utah Policy about the Urban Caucus.