There is an old Hebrew saying that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

In my experience working with local governments, I have found that time and again, vision gets easily clouded.

Cities seem to always be scheming up ways to increase their “tax base.”  Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to increase the tax base. Cities want to provide access to improved services, including things like snow plows and garbage collection. At the same time, cities can overlook the long-term benefits of planning and deliberate decision-making for a short-term gain.

Ultimately, in the political system we have established, cities have every incentive to compete with one another:  for people, for businesses, for resources.  Communities fight with one another to attract the big, new, shiny business (think about that second Amazon location and the national circus that it created), without realizing that they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In our own county, we have so many entities fighting for resources, people, businesses, and taxes that, without some mediator, we often create a race to the bottom.  We stop looking at what is best for the community at large, and start looking at what is only best for our corner of it.  That is why county government is so important.

Salt Lake County cannot lead out on everything—the state legislature won’t let it—but on the issues that it can lead on, it must.  We need to ensure that instead of cities competing, they are collaborating.  We can solve problems like our clean air issues, our mental health problems, our homeless situation, and our canyon congestion—but we can only do it if we work together.

Working together takes vision.

It takes thinking about what we want our county to look like in 10, 20, even 50 years.

The one guarantee is that growth will happen, and change is inevitable.  The question is whether we are going to proactively plan and anticipate this growth and change.  We need a solid growth masterplan, that incorporates issues like housing affordability, mass transit, and health services.  We need to ensure we have adequate space for business and housing, but not at the expense of quality of life.  We need to ensure we have adequate access to our canyons, but not at the very expense of those natural wonders.

Jeff Merchant’s Vision for Salt Lake County

February 8, 2019

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