Town Hall

Crowds turn out for controversial Eagle Mountain town hall

2013-02-14T00:35:00Z 2014-02-24T11:33:44Z Crowds turn out for controversial Eagle Mountain town hallCaleb Warnock - Daily Herald Daily Herald
February 14, 2013 12:35 am  • 

EAGLE MOUNTAIN -- The mayor and council members at Eagle Mountain met with hundreds of residents in a town hall meeting on Wednesday to explain false information in a viral report published by a resident.

More than 250 people stood through the three-hour meeting, and the fire marshal locked doors to the building because so many people tried to attend. Council members opened by promising to refute false information in the report.

"I am not corrupt," Councilman Richard Steinkopf said. "That word corrupt really ruffled my feathers."

Mayor Heather Jackson wept as the meeting opened, addressing the personal attacks on her in a viral 60-page critique of the city posted online.

"I love what I do," she said. She noted that there was a member of the state auditor's office attending the meeting.

By far the biggest complaint fielded by city staff since Monday was the spike in utility bills. Several of the people who complained said the bills were large compared to their bills in California. City staff promised to look at individual bills as requested, but said bills went up simply because homes used more gas and electricity in the bitter cold.

The 60-page report had slammed the city for not publishing the utility rates on individual bills. City administrator Ifo Pili and the mayor said it will cost the city $10,000 to do so, but to meet the public demand, the city will spend the money.

The city's base utility rates are high simply because the city has $51 million in loans for utility infrastructure because the city had to build everything from scratch after incorporating in 1996, Pili said. Until the population grows, rates will continue to be high.

The city does transfer 12 percent of income from natural gas bills and 8 percent of the income from the city-owned electric company to the city's general fund to pay for the time of city staff dealing with utility employees and issues. Every city that owns its own utilities does the same, the mayor said. Staff noted that Eagle Mountain's utility company is the fastest growing in Utah.

The city could choose to stop transferring money from utilities to pay for the library and parks and other city services, but "if we were to get rid of that transfer we would double our taxes or maybe even triple our taxes," Pili said.

The problem is that the property tax paid by residents pays only for the city's fire department. Sales tax to the city pays only a fraction of the city's expenses.

The 60-page document claimed the city was losing huge amounts of money on the city's annual celebration and called for all city special events to end. The city did lose $174,000 on its rodeo in 2010 because it bought the rodeo arena property, the mayor said. In 2011, the rodeo lost $80,000, and in 2012 the rodeo made $20,000. The city believes the rodeo will continue to pay for itself in the future.

Elected officials also noted that the city got $120,000 in private sponsorship for the rodeo in 2012.

Pili said voters set the mayor's $70,000 salary before the mayor was even a council member, let alone the mayor. He defended his own salary, saying he makes $115,000 a year, which is appropriate for someone with a master's degree in public administration. The city recorder makes slightly more than average for her position, but she earns it with her efficiency and years of experience, he said.

The city's receptionist was falsely said to have a $60,000-a-year salary in the 60-page report, and in the past three days she has received an outpouring of threats and harassment over the phone. Pili said she is actually paid $8.50 an hour "plain and simple. Come and look at her pay stub if you don't believe us. She was scared to come to work. Please stop the harassments."

Council members condemned the threats to the receptionist.

The mayor also addressed the eight-day trip to Las Vegas to give a presentation to a professional rodeo association and meet rodeo sponsors -- a trip that paid off, she said. She also noted that when she travels to Washington, D.C., to facilitate federal grants to the city, she stays with family and does not bill the city for a hotel room.

The viral report accused her of using city staff to baby-sit her children and clean her home. Her assistant also is her neighbor and friend and volunteered to watch her children, after hours and without pay. Her assistant also took a day off work to help the mayor clean her home, again unpaid, Jackson said.

"I didn't realize it wasn't OK for me to have friends," she said angrily. "I'll try to refrain from that in the future."

A $25,000 Pony Express statue, which was approved by the council, was paid for by a county grant and not city taxes, officials said.

The report criticized the mayor for sending her children to an unlicensed preschool. The mayor said that until Monday, she had not know the preschool did not have a city license.

After listening to staff and elected officials give detailed facts and charts to correct the viral report, residents then lined up to ask questions, which mostly did not focus on the report. One resident said he saw city workers commuting in city trucks. Pili said two employees are required to be on call 24 hours a day, and when they are on call, they commute with city vehicles.

Another resident said that despite the details offered by the city, "I was falling asleep when you were putting those numbers up. To me it is all hogwash. I'm a little flabbergasted about where all the money is going."

Another resident said he had lost faith. Another said Pili was her neighbor and she would vouch that he is honest. Others complained that their utility bills doubled in December and January and complained that the bills were difficult to understand. Staff and elected officials said repeatedly that bills went up because of the cold weather, and that city rates have not changed.

Nearly three hours into the meeting, a former city employee said the mayor's trip to Las Vegas was not necessary and that showing charges for the rodeo in different fiscal years is "a shell game."

caleb-warnock
-- Caleb Warnock covers 11 cities in north Utah County and is also the Daily Herald's environmental reporter. You can find him on Facebook and at calebwarnock.blogspot.com.
Read more from Caleb Warnock here.

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