Residents opposed to Cedar City rec center expansion nearing threshold to get initiative on ballot

CEDAR CITY — A group of Cedar City residents who are opposed to the city’s plans to borrow up to $7 million for recreation center expansion say they are well on their way to collecting the number of signatures needed to have the issue placed on the November ballot.

The site of a proposed multipurpose recreation center at the Cedar City Aquatic Center, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 4, 2020 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Referendum organizer Dan Kidder, who is sponsoring the formal petition, said he and other volunteers have been collecting signatures of hundreds of registered voters who live within Cedar City limits since early January. 

Tuesday morning, Iron County Clerk Jonathan Whittaker told Cedar City News that a total of 1,376 valid signatures have now been turned in, with another 387 signatures in eight packets to be checked.

Whittaker said the minimum number of signatures that must be submitted in order to get the measure placed on the ballot is 1,647, or 10% of the registered voters who live within the city limits. An additional requirement is that the 10% threshold must be met in at least three of the city’s four voter participation areas.

Kidder said he and his fellow organizers aren’t planning to stop there, as they plan to keep working until they gather at least 3,000 signatures before the Feb. 18 deadline.

“That gives us a good solid margin of error,” he said, “but it also sends a stronger message to the council that more people than they believe disapprove with their spending problem.”

The proposed recreation center project would add basketball gymnasiums and other amenities as an annex to the north of the Cedar City Aquatic Center, which first opened in 2011. The plans had been envisioned as the facility’s second phase since the first phase was constructed just over a decade ago. 

After hearing input from residents on both sides of the issue during multiple public meetings last year, the Cedar City Council voted 3-2 in November to proceed with the expansion plans; however, Kidder filed notice of the referendum just two days after the council’s vote, effectively putting the project plans on hold.

Kidder said he’s not opposed to the idea of the recreational facility itself but rather its price tag and how the city plans to pay for it.

“We didn’t challenge the building of this facility,” he explained. “What we challenged instead is the borrowing of the money. So the resolution that the council passed was to borrow up to $7 million. And that is what we are putting on the referendum: Should the council be allowed to borrow up to $7 million for the construction of this multi-access recreation facility?”

“You know, if they could find another means of funding, like if somebody dropped $7 or $8 million dollars on them and said, ‘Here, build this,’ it would be fine,” he said. “But this is a multi-generational loan, a 30-year bond. Your grandkids will be paying for this.”

Voter referendum sign in front of Cedar City Library in the Park, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Kidder also challenged the idea that funding for the project has recently become available in the city’s budget.

“No money has become available,” he said. “What we’ve done is we’ve paid off a previous debt and are not going to have to service that debt anymore. So the answer by the council is to immediately go out and charge up more debt and keep us indebted. This is a multi-generational debt problem. The council has got a spending problem.”

Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson-Edwards said city officials are waiting to see what happens with the referendum before making any further decisions regarding the project.

“Right now, everything is on hold, pending the referendum signature deadline,” she told Cedar City News on Tuesday.

Referendum signatures must be submitted to the county clerk’s office by no later 5 p.m. on Feb. 18, Whittaker said.

If all the requirements are successfully met, the initiative would be placed on the ballot for the November general election.

Kidder said that’s the primary goal of the referendum: to give residents a chance to have their say.

Although the percentage of registered voters who’ve signed the petition thus far is still not close to the majority of votes that would likely be needed on Nov. 2, Kidder said he’s hopeful that the issue will make it onto the ballot and that the community at large will ultimately vote to override the council’s decision.

“I can’t speak for everybody who’s signed, but of the people I’ve talked to, probably out of 100 signatures I’ve had maybe five who felt like, you know, ‘I would like to see this, but I do think that people should have a vote on it,’” he said. “The vast majority of the people I’ve talked to are opposed to this, at least at this time.”

Voter referendum petition regarding proposed recreation center expansion, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Kidder added that many people with whom he’s spoken have expressed a lack of trust in the City Council.

“This referendum is not just about the basketball complex, but it is also representative of the loss of confidence the people have experienced with how this council has misled us and ignored us,” he said. “Hundreds of people came to the council chambers to speak against this project, and the council repeatedly has ignored them and continued down this wasteful and misguided path. I guess a good number of citizens of this city are wondering why.”

Cedar City Councilman Tyler Melling, who was one of two council members who voted against the proposal in November, told Cedar City News he believes the matter should go on the ballot for the public to decide.

“Where we have a municipal election anyway this year, it’s not going to cost the city a lot of extra money to put that item on the ballot,” he said. “And where what I would estimate are thousands of hours of resident input that have been put into this effort to put the issue on the ballot, I would really like to see this on the ballot so that we don’t have any of this uncertainty anymore. We won’t have any question as to where the people stand on it.”

“Now, if we had overwhelming support for this at the ballot box, when it’s anonymous and nobody’s afraid of any kind of retribution from anybody else, then that’s a different story and maybe this is something we need to look at,” Melling said. “But personally, if I’m going to spend $350,000 a year or more on recreation, I would rather see that spent on amenities that are spread out where the kids that need something to do live. And we don’t really see that in a lot of areas right now.”

Referendum organizers say they will continue to make efforts to reach registered voters by going door to door in neighborhoods over the next couple weeks, in addition to having petition packets available to sign at the city library and other selected locations.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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