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Judge rules Pleasant Grove’s transportation utility fee is an illegal tax

A Fourth District Court judge ruled on Wednesday that Pleasant Grove’s transportation utility fee is not actually a fee but a tax, and therefore is being collected illegally.

According to the lawsuit, Pleasant Grove has, for years, “found itself facing a budget shortfall making it almost impossible for the City to maintain roads at an acceptable level unless additional funding was found.”

After a 2017 ballot initiative that would require the city to take $2.6 million from its general fund and put it toward road maintenance failed to pass, Pleasant Grove Mayor Guy Fugal and the City Council passed an ordinance to implement a “Transportation Utility Fee” (TUF) to fund road maintenance in April 2018, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit focused on whether the TUF implemented was a fee or a tax, the difference being that fees are tied to specific services, such as garbage disposal or electricity, while taxes are used to fund general governmental purposes.

If the TUF implemented by Pleasant Grove was a tax, “then the City would need to go through the additional procedures required by Utah law before a tax increase can be implemented,” according to the lawsuit.

Ultimately, Judge Jared Eldridge ruled that the TUF is a tax and not a fee since the benefit of an improved road system “is a general benefit rather than a specific benefit to those who pay the fees.”

“Based on the current state of the law, this Court is persuaded while the City has authority to implement a TUF, the TUF that was implemented here is clearly a tax and therefore improperly collected until the City satisfies the additional requirements set out by the Utah Code for an increase in the tax rate,” Eldridge wrote in his ruling.

The Lehi-based Libertas Institute, a libertarian group that advocates for limited government and free market principles, funded the lawsuit and identified Pleasant Grove residents who agreed to be plaintiffs, said Connor Boyack, the group’s president.

Boyack said the Libertas Institute funded the lawsuit because Pleasant Grove tried to fund roads using “a mechanism that is illegal.”

“We are pleased with the ruling,” said Boyack, “though certainly not surprised because we think a fair and plain reading of relevant case law and state law clearly show what we argued and what the judge agreed with.”

Other cities have similar utility fees that fund roads and transportation projects, Boyack said, including Provo, Vineyard, Highland, Mapleton and North Ogden.

The lawsuit targeted Pleasant Grove because it was the most recent city to implement such a fee, Boyack said.

“Because Pleasant Grove’s implementation was the newest, we decided that our legal challenge should focus on them rather than another city who had already grown reliant on and had been using these funds,” he said.

Boyack said he hopes other cities will pay attention to the Fourth District Court ruling.

“They’re now on notice that their programs are similarly illegal,” he said.

Pleasant Grove acknowledged the ruling on its Facebook page on Thursday, writing that “the result was a split judgement and we’re consulting with our attorneys regarding the next steps.”

“We will send out more information as it becomes available,” the city wrote.

According to Boyack, the city has been collecting the monthly fee but has not spent it pending the outcome of the litigation. If the city does not appeal the ruling, it will legally have to return the collected fees to residents, he said.

On Friday, Pleasant Grove released a written statement addressing the lawsuit and the transportation utility fee, saying the city "essentially exhausted other funding options and wants to provide decent and functional roads within the city."

"While the ruling appears to infer otherwise, the City does not have the authority under the current state code to enact a tax for road funding," the city wrote. "The only taxing tool at this point is the power to raise property taxes." 

The city said it "has been very open about using this mechanism as a road funding tool" and that the majority of Pleasant Grove residents supported the fee, as evidence by citizen input during public meetings and hearings.

"It is unfortunate that an outside group deliberately singled Pleasant Grove out from along all the other cities utilizing this fee to challenge the legality of a TUF," the city added.

The city hasn't yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling, according to the statement. 

"All of these cities (with a TUF) are watching this case very closely and could be involved in any further proceedings, along with the Utah League of Cities and Towns, should Pleasant Grove decide to appeal this ruling," the statement said. 

Provo 2nd graders do 1,000 acts of kindness for Valentine's Day

The second grade classes’ Valentine’s Day parties at Rock Canyon Elementary School in Provo looked a little different this year.

There were still the traditional boxes covered in glitter and handmade valentines scribbled with crayon, but there were also students at computers creating digital valentines for children in hospitals, blankets being tied for refugees and school care kits that would be sent to an orphanage in Mexico.

“These are awesome kids that are so excited to be helping other people and I love their enthusiasm for it,” said Megan Metcalf, a second grade teacher at Rock Canyon Elementary School.

The school’s four second grade classes made a goal to perform 100 acts of kindness per class in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. As of Thursday, they’ve collectively done more than 1,000.

Those good deeds were tallied on whiteboards in classrooms and written down and pinned up in the hallway. The acts of kindness ranged from bringing a jacket to a friend, to weaving sleeping mats, to writing nice notes, to watching over a little sibling in the grocery store.

The project began after Metcalf heard about her nephew’s school in Layton doing service projects for refugees at Christmas.

Wanting her students’ Valentine’s Day party to be more about playing bingo and eating sugar, she started researching child-friendly service projects in the area.

“Valentine’s Day is such an interesting day at a school for kids because it’s about getting the valentine’s and eating the candy and cookies,” Metcalf said.

At first, she worried that her students would feel like they were missing out on a more traditional party. Instead, students huddled around the perimeter of the blankets, ready to tie them after she explained what a refugee was and showed them on a map where their work would go. Nearby, on a blackboard, a written message reminded students that “no act of kindness, however small, is wasted.”

Across the four classrooms, students created digital Valentine’s Day cards for children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, along with blankets for refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Bangladesh, and school supply kits to send to refugees and to an orphanage in Mexico.

Metcalfe’s students had done more than 540 acts of kindness by Thursday, and had created 300 digital valentines within two days. Her students are already talking about how they want to extend the project and do 1,000 acts of kindness by the end of the school year.

Lucy Felt, a 7-year-old second grader, created digital valentines with messages like “you’re cool” and “may your Valentine’s Day be filled with love.” Her other good deeds have included helping tie another student’s shoes and playing with others.

She was excited to hear about the goal for her class to do 100 good deeds.

“I thought it would be fun because I’m good at it,” Lucy said.

Parents have also seen the impact. After the project began, Marianne Davis’s second grader, Hazel, cleaned gutters for elderly neighbors and wrote nice notes.

“The 100 acts of kindness is exciting to watch them be nice to other people,” Davis said.

Metcalf started the project weeks ago by reading her students the book “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed,” which is about a girl who places a bowl of berries on a neighbor’s doorstep and the chain reaction of good deeds it sets off around the world. Afterward, Metcalf’s students brainstormed ideas for acts of kindness that ranged from eating with someone who is alone at lunch to wanting to build houses for the homeless.

For Metcalf, it’s helped her remember that being a teacher is about more than helping her students learn spelling and math; it’s also about teaching them empathy and compassion.

“This is when it feels like I am making a difference,” she said.

Bill would help Utah's county jails ease inmates' transition to outside health care upon release

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Senate committee Wednesday approved a series of steps to help county jails give released inmates a “warm handoff” back into society with immediate access to substance addiction treatment and mental health services.

Under House Bill 38, the Utah Department of Health would apply for a federal Medicaid waiver to make jail inmates eligible for Medicaid coverage 30 days before release, allowing them uninterrupted access to addiction and mental health treatment.

If a waiver is established, “Now you have a warm handoff to a rehab center outside of jail,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the bill sponsor. “That’s a spot where we lose a lot of prisoners. We want to get them back to being contributing members of society.”

The bill is a product of a two-year study of jail lethality. That research stemmed from a legislative response to an unprecedented wave of 27 jail deaths in Utah in 2016, including six in the Davis County Jail.

Evan Done, community outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, said he is a former addict who knows first-hand the dangers of relapse.

Inmates with substance use disorders are especially vulnerable if they leave jail without support, he said.

“Continuity is critical,” Done told the Senate Business and Labor Committee. “It reduces reoffending and a higher risk for relapse and overdose. It will prevent and reduce overdose deaths.”

HB 38 also directs the launch of a pilot program to offer mental health screening to jails via a tele-health application.

Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen said tele-health would be a boon especially to rural jails but also in larger counties where trained mental health screeners are not readily available.

Further, the bill establishes refundable tax credits for medical workers who take jobs in jails.

“We have a dearth of qualified mental health care workers” to work in corrections during the tight labor market, said Darcy Goddard, a deputy Salt Lake County district attorney who headed the lethality study task force.

If the credits prompted even 50 workers to join corrections health care, “that would be a sea of change,” Goddard said.

HB 38 next goes to the full Senate, where Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, is the floor sponsor. The House passed the bill Jan. 31 on a 43-27 vote.

Researchers find security flaws with blockchain voting app used in Utah County’s 2019 elections

Last year, Utah County piloted a new form of mobile voting for its municipal elections to enable military personnel stationed overseas and residents with disabilities to participate in the democratic process. Now, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the app could have significant security flaws.

Voatz, an application designed by a Boston-based startup company of the same name, uses blockchain and facial recognition technology to verify voter identity, allowing citizens to vote on smartphones rather than by mail or in person at a polling station.

Utah County was one of the few places in the country, along with Colorado, Oregon and West Virginia, to pilot use of Voatz in federal, state or municipal elections. It was also used during the 2016 Utah Republican Convention.

“It’s literally digitizing the exact same process a voter would experience at polls when they show photo ID,” Utah County Deputy Clerk Josh Daniels said in a July interview.

Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner said in July that the app could potentially provide “a more secure and convenient system for the 2020 presidential election.”

In a technical paper released Thursday, a team of MIT researchers said that “Voatz is vulnerable to a number of attacks that could violate election integrity,” adding that an attacker with root access to the voter’s device “can easily evade the system’s defenses … learn the user’s choices … and alter the user’s vote.”

The Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office could not be reached on Thursday to comment on the study.

Graduate students Michael Specter and James Koppel, and MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative Director Daniel Weitzner reverse-engineered the Android application to test its security, according to the paper.

Before publicly announcing their findings, they alerted the United States Department of Homeland Security and “spoke directly with affected election officials in an effort to reduce the potential for harming any election processes.”

Specter said in a press release that the app also poses privacy issues for users since it uses a third party for voter ID verification, allowing for potential access to driver’s license data if that vendor’s platform isn’t secure.

“Perhaps most alarmingly, we found that a passive network adversary, like your internet service provider, or someone nearby you if you’re on unencrypted Wi-Fi, could detect which way you voted in some configurations of the election,” said Specter. “Worse, more aggressive attackers could potentially detect which way you’re going to vote and then stop the connection based on that alone.”

Critics have questioned Voatz prior to the MIT study. Last November, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote to the Department of Defense complaining that the company wouldn’t release audit results or the names of independent experts hired to audit the app.

“This level of secrecy hardly inspires confidence,” Wyden wrote.

Based on their findings and a “lack of transparency” from Voatz, the researchers recommend in the paper “that any near-future plans to use this app for high-stakes elections be abandoned” and that future designs for voting systems be made “available for public scrutiny.”

In a written statement, Voatz rejected the “untested claims” of the MIT paper and accused the researchers of making “bad faith recommendations.” The company said the researchers analyzed an outdated version of the app that wasn’t used in any elections.

“Had the researchers taken the time, like nearly 100 other researchers, to test and verify claims using the latest version of our platform … they would have not ended up producing a report that asserts claims on the basis of an erroneous method,” the company said.

The Boston-based company said that all nine of the governmental pilot elections conducted, including those in Utah, were “conducted safely and securely with no reported issues,” adding that pilot programs “educate all election stakeholders and push innovation forward in a responsible, transparent way.”

“These attempts effectively choke any meaningful conversation and learnings around the safe integration of technology to improve accessibility and security in our elections,” the company said. “The effect is to deny access to our overseas citizens, deployed military service men and women, their families, and citizens with disabilities.”

On its “How Do I Vote?” page, the Utah County Elections Division currently provides information on how to vote using Voatz and a link to the company’s website.

Class size may shape potential 2020 Alpine School District bond

While the Alpine School District’s 2016 bond centered around a message of student safety, it’s potential 2020 bond could take a different direction.

“Voters’ primary concern really hinged on class size,” Kyrene Gibb, the vice president of research at Y2 Analytics, told the Alpine School District Board of Education during the board’s study session on Tuesday.

Gibb presented the results of focus groups on a possible, upcoming bond to the Alpine School District Board of Education on Tuesday. Results came from two focus groups made up of a total of 17 people who were split into groups based on sex. The organization will follow up with a survey late next month to validate its findings.

“Focus groups can only get us so far,” Gibb said.

An informational campaign about a potential bond could come in the summer.

The district last passed a bond in 2016 to fund $387 million that went toward projects such as constructing new schools — including Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain — rebuilding existing, aging schools, purchasing land for future schools, and performing security improvements.

The board has discussed placing a bond on the November ballot but has not announced a price tag or a list of potential projects that could be on it.

The Alpine School District has continued to grow every year. It had 81,532 students as of Oct. 1, according to 2019 enrollment and projection data from the district, and is expected to have 86,290 students for the 2024-25 academic year.

As of Oct. 1, the district had 15 elementary schools that had enrollments of more than 900 students.

The district had 25.21 students for every one teacher during the 2017-18 school year, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education, making it the district with the highest student-to-teacher ratio in Utah. The state average for the same time period was 21.74 students per teacher.

Focus groups for the 2016 bond identified student safety as their top concern for the district.

Lowering class sizes could be a theme for a potential 2020 bond.

“Class size is a significant, perceived concern,” said Shane Farnsworth, an assistant superintendent, during the meeting.

Farnsworth said that increased student enrollment leads to a need to find a way to house additional teachers in order to maintain class sizes.

“I like that direction,” said Mark Clement, a member of the board. “If we don’t have more buildings, we can’t reduce class size. There is no way.”

Clement alluded to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and how it was able to secure large amounts of media attention. Clement said the district could bring in more video and entertainment to make its campaign go viral, and suggesting doing something such as creating their own emojis to get the word out.

The focus groups also voiced interest in a potential shortage of teachers and how the district would attract and retain quality teachers.

Gibb told the board that most of the group members expressed positive opinions about the district’s accomplishments, such as offering Advanced Placement classes and language-immersion programs. The groups also voiced that they wanted to know how the district is spending its funds and if it has explored all of its options for funding growth.

What came as a surprise, Gibb said, was how little information the groups could recall about the 2016 bond. Gibb said most of the focus group said they couldn’t remember the last time the district had a bond on the ballot.

“I do think that speaks to the minimal — really minimal — tax impact that voters felt,” she said.

The $387 million 2016 bond did not raise property taxes due to other bonds being paid off.

Gibb said what voters did remember was a shortfall of bond funds versus projects it was funding and missed deadlines.

One bond project, Lake Mountain Middle School in Saratoga Springs, did not open in time for the first day of school in the fall.

Focus group members also cited false rumors. Kimberly Bird, a spokeswoman for the district, spoke in the meeting about the need for the district to go out and educate the community.

“There are so many misconceptions out there,” Bird said. “They think we did something with the University (Place) mall as a bond project, that $30 million was for the mall.”

Y2 Analytics presented the focus group with the idea of a $500 million bond that would cause a property tax increase, a $450 million bond that wouldn’t lead to an increase and a $400 million bond that would lead to a tax decrease. Gibb said all three had support, but that the groups were confused and skeptical of a bond that would lead to a tax decrease.

Those options will be included on a survey that could go out next month. Other growth management techniques, like switching to year-round school, could also be included on the survey.

Gibb said the board should know what they want with a bond before they potentially vote to place one on the November ballot.

“Once that decision is made, your hands are tied,” she said.