A bill creating an account to help local governments pay for disaster mitigation passed out of a Utah Senate committee Tuesday morning.
House Bill 305, sponsored by Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, was inspired by the plight southern Utah County cities like Woodland Hills find themselves in now that the threat of September’s massive Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires are over. The small cities are struggling to come up with the money needed to pay for projects that would prevent post-fire dangers like mudslides and debris flow.
The bill would feed $2 million from Utah’s general fund into the disaster mitigation fund each year until it capped out at $10 million.
McKell told members of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee that the bill is needed, in part, because cities are capped as to how much they are allowed to save, making it nearly impossible for small cities to be able to fund mitigation projects post-disaster. There is not currently any fund that allows cities and counties to apply for state disaster mitigation funding.
Communities could apply for the funds if either the President of the United States or the governor of Utah declared a state of emergency.
Should the bill pass, the money would be appropriated for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — too late to do much good for Utah County cities that need assistance from Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires. Spring runoff is when danger will be highest for mudslides and debris flows coming off the burn scar.
“I wish it would help Woodland Hills,” McKell said. “It will be a little too late.”
State Forester Brian Cottam spoke in favor of the bill, saying that it’s actually easiest for local governments when the fire is actually burning. The hard part comes later.
“The professionals, the experts, the wildfire folks are there, doing what we know how to do and getting the fire put out,” Cottam said. “The hard part for local governments is when we leave.”
Emphasis is often put on the cost of suppressing a fire, even though much of the total cost comes after the fire is out, Cottam said. However, there’s no system within state government that currently allows the Utah Division of Fire and Forestry to help local communities with the ongoing costs like mitigating mud and debris flows.
“It’s coming,” Cottam said. “And it will be coming to Woodland Hills. We’re almost certain of that.”
Even with Woodland Hills doing all the right things, Cottam said, the city is still “stuck” because it doesn’t have the match necessary to obtain federal funds for the mitigation work to stop the “disaster coming down the hill.” Woodland Hills and several other cities have applied for federal disaster mitigation funding that requires a 25 percent match.
“This fund could help bridge that gap,” Cottam said.
McKell said he has a separate, one-time appropriations request to help Woodland Hills purchase land needed to complete some mitigation projects.
The committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the Utah Senate with a favorable recommendation. The bill has already passed the Utah House.