Monday, December 3, 2018

Notes from the Mayor: Open Space Disposal

I’ve been following some of the Facebook discussions relative the sale of Open Space as well as reading the emails sent to elected officials regarding this issue. One of the arguments raised for doing it now is that the “city” has had a chance to fix it and hasn’t, so time is up.

While I agree that there are issues with Open Space maintenance, I disagree with the conclusion that time is up. There are a number of issues the city has worked over the years that required a lot of time and effort to close. If we arbitrarily decided that enough time had been spent and quit then our roads wouldn’t be getting fixed and the East-West connector design would not be underway.

The city has had a lot of issues to deal with over the last few years and has made significant progress on them. Here are a few:

  • Spending: Going back to 2010 we had significant budget issues where we weren’t always able to pay our bills on time. That council had to re-prioritize spending to get the essentials paid. Since then the city has tried to reduce costs without creating long term issues.
  • Road: Putting a  plan together to have our roads fixed and then getting the funding to do that – this took over 5 years to get right.
  • Public Safety: Dealing with disfunction in the fire department along with funding issues. The personnel issues seem to be largely behind us and we put a dent in funding but still have a ways to go.
  • Enterprise Funds (Sewer, Water, Pressurized Irrigation, Storm Drain): We did a long-term study on these and found that a couple of the funds were going to go negative in the near future. We largely addressed that with a rate change. This took about 2 years.
  • East-West connector:  Design is now under way and construction should start next year. This road has on city plans for about 40 years. In 2008 the connector received $4.17M in funding from MAG/Utah County. In 2018 MAG, Utah County, and Highland authorized UDOT to manage the design and construction of the road. Design began in Nov of 2018. Construction should start in 2019. 
  • Library: Personnel issues in the library and discord between the council and board. These were long standing issues (at least 5 years) which came to a head this year. They seem to be largely resolved now but it took the considerable effort of a number of people. I don’t see that this should consume more staff or council time than any other department going forward. Note, I hear nothing but good about our new Library Director.

Here are some significant issues we are currently facing:

  • Public safety funding: With Cedar Hills leaving we have a clearer picture of the future needs of the Fire Department. I believe there is a gap between where we should be and where we are with respect to funding (how much is a good question). This is something that we are working on.
  • Mountain Ridge Park and associated issues: The sale of Spring Creek park land plus the development of a small park, needed work on other parks, programming and funding for Mountain Ridge Park.
  • Park and trail maintenance costs (what they should be to maintain them well and how should the costs be allocated): We are close to understanding the true cost of maintaining open space. Because of the mowing and trimming outsourcing project we did earlier this year we have a good understanding of the costs of mowing and trimming for manicured parks and park strips. We have largely identified, by classifying our parks, which open space ones should be considered city parks and which should remain in Open Space. We don’t have solid numbers for what we should be spending on trails. I also believe we need to relook at our trails and reclassify which ones fall into open space vs. city.  Clearly addressing this was not as important as roads, public safety or enterprise funds. However it is important and I believe we are at a point where we can spend more time on this important issue and work to resolve it like we did the roads and enterprise funds. Note, over the last 5 years we have spent and average of ~$29,000 per year on trail maintenance.

The bottom line is I don’t agree that time has run out on Open Space /Parks/Trails and would hate for the council to make a decision that cannot be reversed until we understand the issue better (e.g. what the funding deficit is – I am sure there will be some catch-up costs and then ongoing ones). I believe in 2019 we will have time to develop a complete enough picture to start work on a comprehensive plan with options that we can take to the residents. We will have several options if we need to raise additional funds: fee, RAP tax (Recreation, Arts and Parks 0.1% sales tax which would net us about $100K), and/or property tax increase. Additionally, staff is working on getting our own zip code (no guarantee) or  otherwise addressing the internet sales tax issue. Councilman Ostler has been looking into this and believes we are losing well over $100K and potentially over $200K per year.

OpenSpaceMaintenanceAreas
Map of all maintained grass areas in Highland (something we didn’t have last year).

As mentioned we do have actual numbers for the cost of mowing and trimming (inclusive of equipment costs). The total annual cost for all Open Space subdivisions is $234,082. The Open Space fee generates $282,480 per year. This means that mowing and trimming consumes 83% of the Open Space fees leaving the remainder to cover sprinklers, fertilizing, trail maintenance and snow removal …, which of course it doesn’t. This is why the city covers 30% to 45% (depending on the year)  of the cost of Open Space maintenance. You can find my roadmap for resolving the Open Space issue in my 2018 goals post. We are part way through the cost identification process and should be able to complete this sometime in 2019. Then as mentioned we will be able to work on options for going forward that we can present to the residents.

11 comments:

  1. Great post. thank you. I agree, we need to take a closer look at all of this. Thank you for trying to "Make Highland Great-again".

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  2. It's great that they city is finally getting around to looking at this issue. However, I have had to look out my back window at what the city has neglected to do for the last 16 years. I have little faith that the city is going to step and do what they should have been doing with the open space areas. With the demands on the city budget, I don't see how they can do it for several more years.
    My house was broken into on Thanksgiving Day for the second time. It is due to the trails that they had access to the back of my house. I would rather see the trail go away behind my house than have to wait to see what the city thinks they might be able to do.

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    1. I do have faith that the city can address this long-standing issue. Staff and council have worked their way through a number of them as I listed above. I understand that some won't agree. However, we have made progress on the Parks and Trails issue in Highland (we have issues with parks and trails in both open and non-open space areas). There is more to do and staff is making progress.

      As to crime, our police chief was asked earlier this year if there was any significant different between open space and non open space subdivisions in terms of theft and his answer was no. I feel bad that you've experienced it. I don't live in an open space area and my neighbor had a truck and trailer stolen. Packages are stolen off the door steps of homes all over the city. Unfortunately we do have crime in Highland. The good news is that we have less of it than nearly all of the cities in Utah and have a small fraction of the national average (see my recent post on crime).

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  3. This issue has been studied for years. Various solutions have been explored. What you’re asking, Mayor Mann, is that subdivision residents continue living with the eyesore and problems while they wait for some miracle money to appear over and over to fix and maintain the trails for the foreseeable future.

    Multiple solutions for the care of the open space have been proposed and shot down by previous city administrators and council. Residents immediately adjacent to the trails marked as optional are unanimous in moving forward with the proposed surplus of the property.

    Here are just some of the problems with keeping these deteriorating option trails:

    1. Expensive to repair/replace/maintain asphalt trail surface that is currently in bad shape.
    2. Many sections, but not all, in the Wimbleton subdivision open space has homeowner-installed sprinkler pipe connected to their controller systems.
    3. Adjacent homeowners are much more accessible and susceptible to crime because of the easy access the trails provide.
    4. Lack of privacy.
    5. Sticker/goat head weeds are prevalent throughout the trail making them non usable by bicycle.
    6. Many ATV drivers are using the open space as shortcuts through the neighborhood using both grass and trail to drive on creating unsafe situations and extra noise behind the homes.
    7. City has not and does not maintain the property satisfactorily because of lack of funds.

    These trails were not the reason I moved here. They were used as a gimmick by our realtor. Many of us were promised something they never became. They have been a nuisance from the beginning.

    Highland is amazing with extremely close access to the Murdock Canal Trail, American Fork Canyon, and plenty of other recreational activities. Our children have very safe passage to and from Freedom Elementary using sidewalks.

    My hope is that the city council will be fiscally responsible, follow the wants of the adjacent property owners, vote to abandon these optional trails, and allow these households to purchase the property and beautify the neighborhood.

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    1. Here are my thoughts on the enumerated issues:
      1. We don't know the cost of maintaining trails to an appropriate level. The city spends average of $29K per year into trail maintenance but I believe that is insufficient. If we were to eliminate all trails that are not adequately maintained then we would probably need to get rid of most of them.

      2. I am glad that adjacent homeowners have worked to improve the areas adjacent to the trails (that was the point of the maintenance agreements). I don't see how this is a good reason to sell the trail.

      3. The police chief was questioned on this issue this year and from his point of view open space areas have no more incidents of theft than other areas of Highland. Does theft occur in Open Space areas. Yes. Does this mean Open Space is the cause? No.

      4. Privacy is an issue. But having chosen to buy a home with a trail behind the property I don't see how this can be cited as a reason to close the trail. There are other non-Open Space trails that go behind homes, should these all be eliminated?

      5. Sticker/Goathead weeds are an issue. But again this is not unique to open space trails.

      6. Same thing with ATVs

      7. You are correct about funding. However, just like with the roads, I believe we need to gather data (we have more now than we've had in the past) and put plans together that identify what the needs are and how they can be addressed. If we have plans that include specific costs and benefits I believe the residents will support the actions needed to fund them. They did that with the roads. I would expect the same. However, dealing with this on a piecemeal basis or framing it as an Open Space only issue I believe is the wrong approach. Aside from the Open Space fee, there are some issues that may be more pronounced within the Open Space subdivisions but I don't believe they are necessarily unique.

      With respect to trails. Were I still a parent of school age children and were trails available from them to use to get to school I would encourage them to take the trails as from my point of view they are safer than sidewalks (no driveways to cross with the risk of cars backing out, no cars driving by with the risk that a driver that is texting could veer onto the sidewalk).

      The bottom line for me is at the moment I don't know what the best long-term solution is because I don't have access, and I don't believe the council has access, to information that would would help create one. There will be multiple paths forward depending on how much residents are willing to fund. But, we need to know what those option are and the associated costs before we can reach a good decision.

      I would note that council and staff have over the last few years dealt with difficult long-standing issues. They take time to resolve but progress has been made as noted above. In my view parks and trails are one of the next major ones to focus on. I would point out that we actually have more data now than we did last year and last year we had more data than the year before. The two primary data points are Park classification, and details on all the grass we maintain and the mowing and trimming costs. So while we haven't advertised this much staff has been quietly working on it.

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    2. With regard to the sprinkling system, assuming the city magically obtained funds to care and maintain the trails and connected open space, it seems really strange to feed city property with systems connected directly to homes instead of city controllers. This is just one of many issues that would need to be addressed if the city begins to care for these areas.

      I don’t understand how it makes sense for a city scraping by financially to be so concerned last-second with a small, outlying, non-functioning trail system. Your post seems very politically motivated with its timing.

      Years ago, an open space committee was formed to study, make recommendations, and develop ordinances of how to address open space problems. The open space neighborhoods were an idea fueled by developers to pack more homes into a smaller piece of land. Land developers pulled it off, took their money, and left the city and residents with a number of problems to deal with. These types of subdivisions are no longer being built in Highland for good reason. We’ve at least learned a lesson from that.

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    3. I am assuming that maintenance agreements were signed where sprinklers were added. This gave the resident the right to use the property (without adding permanent structures). Are you proposing that as part of a solution these be discontinued?

      I agree 100% that the there are issues with Open Space that are rooted in not fully vetting the concept. I understand that the Open Space committee has been around for years. However, have we ever understood the cost of maintaining trails adequately? Has there ever plans presented that say in order for us to maintain trails in Highland here are the costs? Do we know how many people use which trails? BTW, in the last year the city purchased (via grant money) a trail counter to help us understand how they are being used. Before we permanently remove trails I think it is appropriate to understand how their being used, what the costs would be to properly care for them and then put options in front of the residents for how to move forward on this issue, which affects all of Highland. One of the lessons we hopefully learned from the Open Space initiative is not to make decisions without complete information. By the way, there a many residents who live in open space subdivisions that really like them for a variety of reasons.

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  4. I think Dave Hall summed up the situation really well in one of the other public threads on this topic. I’ll post it here just in case you or anyone else reading missed it:

    “Let me share a slightly different perspective. I have now served on the open space committee for seven years. I spent hundreds of hours studying this issue, walking the trails with the families that live next to them, going over the city’s budget and meeting with people from all 18 open space neighborhoods in the city.”

    “This summary of this issue is that the master plan trail system was poorly designed. Funding to maintain such an extensive trail system was not adequately planned for and future problems were not anticipated.”

    “During the housing boom, decisions were made that were absolutely not sustainable long-term. Now we are in a situation where we need to live within our means and be responsible to avoid future catastrophic situations that will dramatically decreased quality-of-life and Highland Utah.”

    “So we have one of two choices to make. Raise taxes on everyone to maintain the trail system or start cutting thingss that we already have in the budget to make maintaining the trails a higher priority in the budget.”

    “We have already tried to raise the taxes and fees and received overwhelming pushback from the community on that issue.”

    “So now what do you want to cut? Should we cut the number of law enforcement officers we have? Should we decrease the number of firemen? should we stop trying to get the roads up to fair condition so that we can have a bike trail behind our houses? Where should this extra money come from?”

    “If we could get an extra $500,000.00 for trails. What makes your trail a priority? There are 17 other neighborhoods that also have trails that want that money. Then where does the money come from in a few more years to oil and seal the trails again so that they don’t dry out crack and crumble again? Every few years these trails that we decided to keep will need to be maintained. Since we don’t have the money now, what is going to change 5 10 15 20 years down the road?”

    “My neighborhood was facing very similar situation a few years ago. We looked at the trail system plan in our neighborhood and chose to keep the trails in the center of the park that everyone could enjoy and abandon any trails behind our houses. We then sold off that property to the adjacent homeowners which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. That money now benefits open space neighborhoods to improve parks and play grounds that get used a lot more than a trail behind our houses.”

    “Was it a tough situation to resolve? Yes! Where there heated arguments on both sides of the conversation? yes! Do we now look back years later and think we made the right decision? Absolutely!”

    “Our park and playground is one of the best in the entire city. We no longer have the goat head thorns we had in the open space because the homeowners next to that property now own it and take care of it. We all know as families sometimes we need to downsize our expenses and tighten our budget to make sure the future is better.”

    “We can’t live like Washington DC where money appears out of thin air and we can afford everything. In order to save the trails we need to get rid of something else or everyone in the city needs to agree to raise the taxes.”

    “We have gone over this issue for seven years and we come to the exact same conclusion every single time. People who don’t attend the meetings and don’t understand the issues then cry foul and want us to save their trails at the last second and want us to start the process all over again to look for more money. If you really cared about your trails, you probably should have been involved in the process just a little bit over the last seven years.”

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    1. Let me add my response to Dave's post, with some minor changes as well:

      David you make some good points David, however the issue I have is we are making decisions without complete information. We don't yet know what the true costs are of maintaining trails, we are just getting a good picture of the cost of maintaining grass, we also need to better understanding of the costs of maintaining "native" vegetation (aka weeds) and the costs of fixing this. Trails and park maintenance are not just an Open Space issue they are a city wide issue. There are trails everywhere with weeds. Staff is making progress but I think we need to understand the big picture better before we start dealing with issue a piece at a time.

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  5. Mayor Mann, what is Kyle Pettit's relation to you?

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    1. Kyle is my wife's cousin. That said the thoughts I've shared are simply a reflection of my Jan 1 post regarding my thoughts on Open Space, parks and trails and the process I would like to see used to resolve this issue. Kyle has the same access to me as any Highland resident. There are issues we agree on and ones we don't. This is one where we are largely on the same page.

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