When the people of Salt Lake County implemented a new form of government 11 years ago, they gave the power to prepare a budget to the new county mayor. But they also left intact the authority of the county auditor as the budget officer, so he also has prepared the tentative budget. This created unnecessary duplication. Now that the County Council has amended the county charter to designate the mayor as the county budget officer and concentrate budget preparation in his or her office, the auditor is squawking.
He should not be. It doesn't make sense for two elected county officials, possibly from different political parties, to prepare the budget separately. The County Council was right to consolidate the budget functions in the mayor's office and preserve the independent authority of the auditor to be the elected financial watchdog. The auditor's job should be to conduct audits.
That is, in fact, what a study by the Government Finance Officers Association recommended to the county in the strongest of terms, which helps to explain why the County Council enacted the change by an 8-1 bipartisan vote.
By vesting budget preparation solely in the mayor's office, the amended charter creates greater accountability. If there's a problem, the voters will know whom to blame: the mayor. In addition, the mayor can better hold the heads of departments to account. Communications during budget preparation should improve. Everyone knows where the buck stops.
Well, almost. The County Council adopts the budget, so it has an important role to play. The council must be accountable for changes it makes.
It's a system of checks and balances, rather like the division of powers between the executive and legislative branches in the federal and state governments.
Nevertheless, County Auditor Greg Hawkins has sued to stop the change in the county charter. He has argued that the amendment undermines budget independence. He says, for example, that it is better for his office to make revenue projections, because it is not tied to any new spending plans that a mayor may wish to pursue.
But that argument misses the central point. The county budget is as much a policy document as a financial one. The people don't elect the county auditor to make policy decisions. That's what the council and the mayor do. And it makes no sense for the mayor to rely on the staff of another elected official to prepare his budget.
Hawkins should withdraw his lawsuit. He's defending turf, not principle.