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As the sometimes-controversial Utah Transit Authority is catching blame for the apparent demise of Proposition 1 in Salt Lake County and its thumping in Utah County, agency leaders vowed Wednesday to earn public trust and keep promises to improve service in counties that approved the tax hike.
UTA board members also heard a report that its pay to administrators is now lower than the transit-industry average. In recent years, the agency had caught flak for offering annual bonuses of up to $30,000 and total compensation (including benefits) of more than $400,000 a year to top officials.
"We want to continue to let the public know that this current board is making good decisions. They put trust in us to fix some things, and we have been and we continue moving forward," UTA Board member Matt Bell, who is also a Weber County commissioner, said during regular UTA committee meetings Wednesday.
In elections Tuesday, three of the six counties in the UTA district Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder apparently defeated Prop 1 to raise the sales tax by a penny for every $4 in purchases for transportation and transit.
Meanwhile, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties apparently passed it. However, margins are less than 2 percentage points in Salt Lake and Tooele counties, so late-arriving absentee and mail-in ballots could change the final outcome at vote canvasses Nov. 17.
Among those six counties, each one approving Prop 1 would send 40 percent of the new revenue to UTA, and the rest would go to cities and counties for roads and other transportation projects.
In the wake of the election, critics and supporters said protest votes against UTA were the main reason Prop 1 went down in some counties. The agency has been criticized for high salaries and bonuses, extensive executive travel and sweetheart deals with developers.
"Forty percent of the tax hike would have gone to the UTA, which has proven itself time and again to be a hotbed of waste, fraud and abuse," Evelyn Everton, Utah director of the anti-Prop 1 Americans for Prosperity, said after the polls closed.
She called defeat in some counties "a clear directive to UTA to get its house in order" and a sign that "UTA won't get another penny from taxpayers until they can prove they will more responsibly manage our hard-earned taxpayer dollar."
Even Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, a strong supporter of Prop 1, said almost all attacks against the ballot question in Salt Lake County were aimed at UTA, while people seemed to support the portion dedicated to local roads.
Some Utah County leaders such as state GOP state Sens. Margaret Dayton and Mark Madsen and state Rep. Brian Greene had urged defeat of Prop 1 so the Legislature could create two tax-increase questions, one for UTA and one for cities and towns.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said Wednesday, "Many criticisms leveled at UTA were inaccurate and did not reflect that the board of trustees has diligently studied those issues [of past controversies] and made meaningful changes."
Recent UTA efforts to polish its image included the retirement of some big-salary officials, reducing maximum bonuses from $30,000 to $7,500 (and executives voluntarily giving them up for two years), and requiring international travel to be approved in open board meetings.
UTA also replaced former board chairman, now House speaker, Greg Hughes with H. David Burton, former presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The board heard a report from a consultant, the nonprofit Employers Council, that said UTA pay is below average for administrators, compared to similar jobs at other transit and government agencies and nonprofit groups. It said base pay is 9 percent below the industry average, bonuses are 13 percent below, and combined pay and bonuses are 11 percent lower.
"UTA has a well-designed, well-administered, market-based total compensation program for its administration employees," said Kimberly Barton with the Employers Council.
Meanwhile, Barron said, "Ridership is the highest in our history, and we run an efficient system with more service on the street than our peers. We will continue improving and providing excellent service and look forward to providing additional service in the many counties where Prop 1 passed."
UTA Chief Planning Officer Matt Sibul said, "In counties that passed the tax, people are going to start seeing tangible components of this [new extra service] in April."
The higher tax in those counties won't take effect until April, and UTA won't receive any of the money until next summer.
Because of that delay, "We're proposing to make most of the additions to service next August. That will be our big change day," Sibul said. "Some of the changes won't be fully realized for a couple of years … because we need to order new buses. It's a good thing, but it takes a couple of years."
Board member Jeff Hawker said, "It is important, since we represented that we would make certain service upgrades, that we actually get those plans in place as revenue begins to come in."