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SALT LAKE CITY — It appears that the Salt Lake City Council is gearing to place a proposed $80 million general obligation bond on the ballot this fall that will help pay for major improvements to the city's well-visited parks.
However, if it is on the ballot, what voters see likely won't look exactly like what the plan Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall first proposed in May.
During a work session Tuesday afternoon, members of the council voted unanimously in an unofficial straw poll to amend the plan, cutting in half the $9 million that Mendenhall sought for improvements to Allen Park in Sugar House.
Instead, $3.5 million would go toward a provision to improve at least one park, trail or open space project within every council district, upping the total to $10.5 million there. The other $1 would go toward the city's Fleet Block project, meaning that the project would receive $6 million of the total $80 million proposed.
The council unanimously passed another unofficial straw poll that approved the remaining parts of Mendenhall's plan, which calls for $27 million to go toward the creation of the Glendale Regional Park, a park currently in the planning and construction stages.
However, these aren't "final decisions," Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler pointed out. Both polls mean that the council is generally on the same page with the idea; however, they have until Aug. 16 to approve the proposal during a formal council meeting. If they do, then residents can vote on the measure in November.
Pulling back on Allen Park
Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy opened Tuesday's discussion by proposing a $4.5 million reduction to Allen Park funds. He reasoned that the park, an old historic property that the city acquired for $7.5 million in 2020, is in need of a lot of major improvements because of the worn-down buildings, though the timeline isn't completely clear as to when or if those projects will happen.
At the same time, there are plenty of other parks and open spaces the city is looking at for the near future.
"There's a lot of questions there. It's a park that might need more and we don't know really know how to approach this project," he said. "And there are all sorts of needs across the city."
There wasn't much disagreement about his position among council members. But reducing the amount directed to Allen Park raised some concern about the park's future, especially a plan to stabilize the main lodge near the park's entrance before it could potentially be lost forever.
The Salt Lake City's Parks and Public Lands Department is currently reviewing quotes for that project, said Katherine Maus, a public lands planner for the division. She added that she believes $4.5 million should at least cover the cost to stabilize the building, though it's unclear if can provide many more park upgrades beyond that.
"I can't say confidently what we'd be able to get for $4.5 million, and with inflation and escalation, depending on when we would do that stabilization work, it would be difficult to tell. But we can do significant stabilization with $4.5 million, at least on the Allen Lodge," she said.
The original plan also called on the preservation of the park's art, planting of native vegetation and trees, and improvements to the stream that runs past the property in addition to the restoration of the main lodge, so it can be made available for public use in the future.
Both Fowler and Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano suggested that the city could look toward public-private partnerships so that the city and city taxpayers aren't solely responsible for the bill. This idea isn't just for Allen Park, but other historic properties that would be funded through the bond or a separate sales tax bond, such as the Fisher Mansion and the Wasatch Springs Plunge.
Yet the public benefits of a project's final product should be considered when entering any public-private partnerships, Mendenhall said.
Sticking with Glendale Regional Park's future
While Allen Park generated the bulk of Tuesday's discussion, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler expressed concern about the biggest project listed on the general obligations bond. With $27 million on the line, the project's total budget stands to drastically increase from the current $3.2 million that Salt Lake City Parks and Public Lands has to work with.
Kristin Riker, the department's director, said the $27 million estimate comes from the vision plan that her team has been assembling over the past few months, which includes a "water feature," boardwalk, a community plaza, food truck access, a sports court, hiking/biking trails and other amenities for the 17-acre plot of land at the former site of Raging Waters
The park is required to open by April 2024 because of stipulations from past state and federal funds.
Petro-Eschler said she's fine with the cost but worried that with no fail-safes, the Glendale Regional Park's future could receive a crippling blow if the bond doesn't pass.
"I would be uneasy with all of Glendale being up to (all Salt Lake City) voters," she said, adding that she would prefer that some money from the proposed sales tax bond go toward the project if the parks bond doesn't pass.
Riker and Mano reassured that there are a handful of other ways the city can collect funds for the project if voters reject the bond in November. These include impact fees, which the city collects with every development project that can go toward parks.
What happens next
There weren't many other discussions regarding the rest of the general obligation bond. Other projects listed in the original document include improvements to the Jordan River Corridor and the playground at Liberty Park; this is also the completion of the newly-opened Folsom Trail.
That's in addition to the $10.5 million that would go toward neighborhood parks, trails and open spaces across the city, and $6 million toward the Fleet Block project, based on Tuesday's adjustments.
Ultimately, the city council must decide by its Aug. 16 meeting whether it will place the measure on the November ballot. If approved, the median-priced homeowner would end up with about a $31 increase in property tax, beginning in 2024, city officials explained in June.
The council will also vote on whether to create a $65 million sales tax revenue bond, though that could be issued at any time and won't be on a ballot. After a lengthy debate over the maintenance projects that it would fund, members of the council decided on Tuesday to revisit the discussion within the next two months.