Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy says he’s resigning in protest over budget, plans to release 128 inmates

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy speaks during a news conference concerning the finding and identification of the remains of Elizabeth Elena Laguna Salgado on Thursday, May 24, 2018, at the Utah County Sheriff's Office in Spanish Fork. Authorities said Salgado's death is being investigated as a homicide after her skeletal remains were found in Hobble Creek Canyon, several miles from where she was last seen in April 2015. (Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald via AP)

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy says he’ll leave office at the end of the month in protest over what he says is a budget shortfall of up to $1 million and plans to release up to 128 inmates and possibly eliminate 20 employee positions.

He said the decision to quit effective Aug. 1 came from a dispute with the commission over how to plug a budget gap he says was created by the high health-care costs of one of the jail’s inmates.

Tracy surprised the County Commission when he took the microphone during public comment at the end of Tuesday’s meeting and announced his resignation. He was set to retire at the end of his fourth term in January.

“I will also take that effort to close two pods in the jail and work out a system that is currently under review to eliminate 128 beds and release those individuals into the community,” Tracy said.

In a phone call later, Tracy declined to elaborate on the issue and said he’d put out a written statement.

”I expressed my concerns privately to the commission on what my reasoning is behind stepping down and resigning,” Tracy said. “It’s counterproductive to get into a bunch of verbal arguments over something that is not going to be an easy or a quick fix.”

The two commissioners present at the meeting were surprised because they say the sheriff’s office has plenty of money in its medical account to get by until the commission can reopen the budget and cover any remaining bills.

They also said the county has enough money to keep the jail fully open — without releasing any inmates — and to avoid staff cuts.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah County jail in Spanish Fork.

Yet they acknowledge there’s an issue with an inmate’s skyrocketing medical costs.

“We have one inmate who shouldn’t even be in this country because of a previous conviction who has currently cost us over $500,000 in medical expenses,” Commissioner Nathan Ivie said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

Ivie said the inmate’s medical bills had been at about $800,000 but the county was able to negotiate to bring the cost down. The inmate is still in custody and receiving treatment, Ivie said, and costs will continue to climb.

“We’re looking to the federal government and federal delegation to step up,” Ivie said. “It’s their responsibility to enforce these laws. It’s their failure to act that’s created this situation.”

Tracy said he’d been raising the issue with the commission for two months but hadn’t heard back. He said he took that as a vote of “no confidence” in his ability to lead the department he’s overseen since 2003.

Ivie and Commissioner Bill Lee said the concerns haven’t been ignored. Lee said he talked to members of Utah’s congressional delegation and brought up the issue with White House staff during a visit late last month.

“It was my No. 1 issue. I talked about it in the meeting,” Lee said. “Yet I’m being called out as not” listening.

Lee said he spoke to Tracy later on Tuesday and the sheriff told him the job has “just taken too much toll on his health, so it’s better for him to step down.”

If the sheriff defies the commissioners and moves to shutter a part of the jail before resigning, he said he’d look at “longevity of inmate service” and “severity of crime” before choosing which inmates to release.