By Alex Jensen
For The Salt Lake Tribune
Last month, The Salt Lake Tribune reported on actions taken in Orem regarding next steps for UTOPIA, the fiber-optic network backed by 11 member cities. The purpose of the Feb. 26 meeting, which was properly noticed as a discussion, not a public hearing, was for the City Council to receive information about UTOPIA and provide direction to the city's voting representative on the UIA (Utah Infrastructure Agency) board.
Contrary to reports, the city of Orem did not approve any bond funding at Tuesday's meeting. Through its own meeting process, the multi-city UIA Board the meetings of which are public will make a decision about whether or not to proceed with a second draw of bond funding that was publicly and appropriately authorized by UIA cities in 2010. That authorization was for up to $65 million for infrastructure, of which $29.5 million has been allocated to-date. If approved, the next draw would request up to $24 million.
Last fall, the Utah Legislature strongly discouraged UTOPIA from borrowing for operational expenses. UTOPIA has long had that as a goal, and has accelerated efforts in this direction. Member cities have been asked to contribute toward UTOPIA operational expenses outside of the bond proceeds. On this question, Murray and Tremonton recently voted no, but these votes in no way constitute an "opt out" from UTOPIA, nor are they permanently binding.
Direction was given to meet Orem's proportional share of those expenses using resources available in this year's general fund operating budget, consistent with requirements in the Utah Uniform Municipal Fiscal Procedures Act. Budget amendments are typically necessary when appropriated amounts are increased, not when funds are moved within a department. Monies contributed to operational expenses are loans and will be reimbursed to the city at a future date.
For the cities behind UTOPIA, our perspective is that there can no longer be a debate on the merits or need for fiber infrastructure; those questions have clearly been answered in the affirmative. We live in the digital age. Every day, advanced broadband connectivity like that offered through UTOPIA becomes more and more essential, and it will be as important in our everyday lives as the telephone and electricity.
A hundred years ago, Murray City decided to start its own power company. There was a tremendous amount of infrastructure to build and maintain. It took a number of years and plenty of effort before the system was a complete success. Today, Murray Mayor Dan Snarr says, "If Murray hadn't been patient and stayed the course, Murray Power wouldn't be the strong, reliable system our residents enjoy today."
As with power 100 years ago, let's not be shortsighted. This is an investment we need to make today for a better tomorrow, for our residents and businesses.
Alex Jensen is the city manager of Layton and the first vice chair of the Utah Infrastructure Agency.