by Zak Podmore
The Utah Lieutenant Governor’s office hosted a public meeting at the Bluff Community Center on August 8 where Bluff residents and property owners debated incorporating as an official town.
The meeting of more than 75 people began with a presentation on the financial feasibility of incorporation from Bob Springmeyer of Bonneville Research in Salt Lake City.
In June, the Lt. Governor commissioned Bonneville Research to conduct a study of Bluff’s local economy and issue a recommendation on whether or not it could be incorporated into a self-sustaining town.
Springmeyer said the report aimed at answering a basic question: “Will there likely be sufficient revenues if a town is formed to maintain current levels of service?”
Springmeyer told the audience that according to the findings of his 37-page report, the answer to that question is “yes”. Incorporation is feasible.
Springmeyer went on to explain how Bonneville Research calculated the cost of current services in the proposed town area, which it estimates to be $129,000 per year.
Services considered in the report include police, fire, road maintenance, administrative costs, parks, and other expenses.
Tax revenues – including property taxes, local option sales tax, road funds, and federal funds – were estimated to be $129,663 per year, though Springmeyer noted that some tax information is confidential and that the true number is likely higher.
A possible resort tax on tourists, which could be implemented by a future town council, was not considered in the report.
Both the feasibility study and the public presentation of its findings are required under Utah state law.
After Springmeyer concluded his presentation, an audience member requested County Commissioners Phil Lyman and Rebecca Benally, both of whom were in attendance, to comment on the proposed incorporation.
Commissioner Lyman said, “I love Bluff,” and noted that Bluff has “some very intelligent” residents with “strong passions” and varying perspectives on incorporation.
“Bluff should do what Bluff is destined to do,” said Lyman.
Commissioner Benally agreed, adding, “I support what the town of Bluff wants to do.”
“If you’re after local control,” she added, “incorporation is probably the best way to do it.”
Linda Sosa, co-chair of the incorporation committee, said the incorporation process had been underway for a year. “We set this up to be grassroots and inclusive. Fifty people joined committees in June, 2016. The community involvement we’ve had has made this possible.”
Brant Murray, the other co-chair, said the future town council will have to make many decisions but that incorporation is the first step to helping the town direct its own future.
“The idea is to crawl, then to walk, and then to prosper,” Murray said.
Incorporation sponsors Luanne Hook, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, and Ann Leppanen all spoke in favor of incorporation.
Josh Ewing was the last sponsor to comment. “If we like the way things are, and we don’t want things to change, we need to be proactive and grab hold of our destiny to the extent that we can,” he said.
Meeting organizers opened the floor to audience members who wished to speak in favor of incorporation. Several residents noted that incorporating would grant more local control over planning and zoning, as well as give the town a larger voice in county discussions.
When organizers asked to hear comments against incorporation, nobody approached the microphone, but as more people spoke, reservations emerged.
Several business owners and residents expressed concern over increased taxes and possible town debt. Longtime resident Marx Powell said, “You talk about self-control, and I think that’s great – if we can afford it.”
Sponsors noted that any decision to change current tax rates would be made by an elected town council, not the incorporation committee.
San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson said the Bluff’s EMT and volunteer fire department could work out a deal with the county to respond to emergencies beyond town limits in exchange for county services.
Police services would likely be contracted from the Sheriff at an hourly rate if the town were to incorporate.
Some residents implored the community to consider those living nearby on the Navajo Nation before making any decisions.
“Let’s be the best border town we can be,” said local educator Malyssa Egge.
Bluff, which is currently a two-square-mile service area, would expand to a 38-square-mile town under the current proposal.
Town limits would stretch from Comb Ridge to Recapture Canyon. The San Juan River forms most of the proposed southern boundary, while the northern boundary would be roughly three miles north of town on the Bluff Bench.
Several people questioned whether the area is too big. Sponsors note that the proposed town limits would account for less than one half of one percent of San Juan County.
By making the town area the proposed size, sponsors said, the future town council would have more of a say over potential developments on the outskirts of Bluff.
On November 7, Bluff will vote on the incorporation proposal. Permanent residents who live within the proposed town limits and who are registered to vote will be eligible to participate.
Luanne Hook, owner of Recapture Lodge and a sponsor of incorporation, said at the meeting, “Bluff has been a town since the late 1800s, and I think it’s time to make this ‘town’ official.”
If the proposal passes, elections for mayor and the four-member town council will be held in June, 2018.