The St. George City Council debate focused on the forces tugging at the city
There are only three seats open on the St. George City Council this election year. When voters look at their ballot, they’ll have five contenders to choose from.
The candidates — incumbents Dannielle Larkin and Jimmie Hughes and newcomers Paula Smith, Steve Kemp and Brad Bennett — tried to demonstrate that they should be part of the trio voters select in a Nov. 1 debate.
For over an hour in a nearly full room at Utah Tech University’s Eccles Fine Arts Center — capacity 490 — they covered a number of pressing issues facing one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, from housing affordability and traffic to public safety and welcoming LGBTQ+ residents.
Like the rest of Utah, St. George has a housing crunch
The cost of housing is a critical quality of life issue that touches every resident. The median home price in Washington County reached more than $500,000 in 2022, up from less than $150,000 two decades prior.
Incumbent Larkin said the council has been working on zoning changes that could help build “gentle density” into the housing market, such as giving owners the ability to add a rental unit on the property where they live.
“How do we make it so that people can live here in a sustainable manner and so that the people who already live here don't feel run out?,” Larkin said. “That's a challenge for us, and it's a challenge we're constantly talking about.”
With forecasts predicting the area’s rapid growth will continue for decades, solutions may be hard to come by. Kemp, who chairs the city’s planning commission, suggested changing zoning regulations that currently seem to push developers to build large homes, rather than a variety of sizes and price points. He cautioned, however, that the council is limited in what it can do to make more affordable homes appear.
“Short of federal Section 8 housing, cities cannot create affordable housing. What cities can do is they can try and make it easier or encourage private developers to create housing that is affordable,” Kemp said.
Arm wrestling over taxes and spending
Another burning issue was how the city should spend taxpayer money as it grows. Bennett called for a “full, impartial analysis” of the city budget and said the council’s decision to dip into rainy day funds to pay for police and firefighters last year showed a lack of preparedness. Smith said growth of the budget — it sits north of $500 million for this year — has outpaced the city’s population, which could hurt taxpayers.
“We will be taxing people out of their homes and in the same breath asking, ‘How do we achieve affordable housing?’” Smith said.
Both of the conservative challengers, Smith and Bennett, hinted at the possibility of the council trying to raise property taxes in the future. But Hughes, who currently serves on the council, pushed back.
“In case you got the idea that this council that I'm on has a plan to raise property taxes next year, that is not true — 100% not true,” Hughes said.
He also defended the decision to use rainy day funds for public safety, because that’s what he said it should be for. If residents want more transparency about what’s going on with city finances, Hughes said, they are welcome to contact him or other council members anytime.
“We have emails. We have cell phones. I don't think there's any council person I work with that doesn't return those. That's how we foster community togetherness,” Hughes said.
Friction over how the city spends taxpayer money also surfaced during questions about transportation and infrastructure. Smith cited the planned bus route between St. George and Zion National Park as an example of the city taking on unnecessary projects that could strain its budget.
“Now we're going to be taking money from our roads to subsidize a bus route that we didn't ask for,” Smith said.
Hughes countered that the $15 million state grant that pays for the bus route’s first decade will actually benefit St. George by paying for new infrastructure within the city’s existing SunTran public bus system. A city official told KUER in August that ongoing costs for the bus to Springdale would be covered by a portion of a countywide sales tax, much of which comes from tourist dollars.
Larkin went a step further, saying the city’s transportation plan needs to account for people walking, biking and taking buses in order to make it a safe community for everyone.
“Only people who sit in privilege say things like ‘the bus route that we didn't ask for,’” Larkin said. “Whether they are too young [or] they don't have the finances for a car, there are so many people in our community who can not drive.”
Finding enough water in the desert
One issue where there seemed to be more agreement was the need to conserve water as St. George grows. Each candidate applauded some of the current efforts to stretch water supplies in southwest Utah, such as the city’s water recycling program and the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s 20-year water plan.
Smith said the city should extend these initiatives even further by making conservation a bigger part of local childhood education.
“Sending them home with activities on how we can conserve water, planting trees with the family, getting them engaged in the community,” she said. “I think it should start with the students.”
Bennett said projects in the works to increase water supplies, such as Graveyard Wash Reservoir, are critical. But St. George needs to stay within its limited water means as it grows, he said, especially since its current water use already has it close to the danger zone.
“We are definitely dipping into our headroom. We are not ahead of the curve at this moment. I think that these projects coming online will solve that problem. But we have to start making decisions based off a bird in the hand, not two birds in the bush.”
St. George’s brush with the culture wars
For Vince Brown, the director of Utah Tech’s Institute of Politics and chair of the Washington County Debate Coalition, which put on the debate, the large turnout was encouraging — although not necessarily surprising in a city that’s undergoing rapid change.
“When you have growth, you have challenges,” Brown said. “People experience it daily here … so a lot of people who have been here for a long time that may not have been as engaged in politics, are now starting to become more engaged.”
Beyond the increased interest, Brown said this race also feels different than past local elections because of some smear tactics that have shown up — specifically a rash of vandalized signs for incumbent Dannielle Larkin and hundreds of notes placed on cars around town tying Larkin to the drag shows that became a hot-button issue in the past two years.
“This campaign feels more aggressive, more negative, and more personal than any other campaign. And I think, again, that's largely because of actions like that,” Brown said.
Larkin responded to those actions during the debate, describing this race as the “most ugly” campaign she’s seen here.
“For me, that is very sad and very heartbreaking because it is not what St. George is all about,” Larkin said. “We should not allow this kind of negativity and hatefulness to creep into our community. We're better than that.”
One back-and-forth between newcomer candidates Bennett and Kemp during the debate highlighted the divisions St. George is grappling with, focusing on whether or not local government bodies should spend time on social issues beyond their control. Bennett said other candidates plan to stay out of national cultural issues, but he disagrees.
“Heaven forbid the county or the state or the federal government start trying to push something on our city we do not want. You can count on me to be there for you at the Capitol, if needed,” Bennett said.
One example Bennett has spotlighted in his campaign is the recent name change at the university where the debate was held.
“If we had better representation than we've had in the past, I firmly believe we would all be sitting in the Eccles Center at Dixie State University,” Bennett said.
The change from Dixie State to Utah Tech was due to legislation passed by state leaders, so it was not a city council decision. But polling from 2021 showed that most Utahns opposed the change. Bennett, who also helps lead the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, has made protecting other Dixie-named sites from further “assault” part of his platform. Smith also highlights the Dixie issue on her website, calling it an attempt to “cancel history.”
Kemp responded by saying that any council member is free to advocate for issues that matter to them, but council business should be limited to the urgent issues they’re tasked with overseeing — of which there are many.
“We need to stay within our lane and we need to be within the control and the purview of what the city's there for. We have plenty to do. We’re the fastest-growing community in the United States,” said Kemp.
Election Day is Nov. 21 and ballots are already in the mail. Ballots can be placed in one of Washington County’s drop boxes 24 hours a day until 8 p.m. on Nov. 21 or returned by mail as long as they’re postmarked by Nov. 20.
Voters can also cast or drop off their ballots in-person at a voting center location between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 21.