Utah County commissioners have claimed greater control of the county’s $100 million budget with a swift maneuver that high-ranking state officials have decried as a power grab that wipes away important checks and balances on government spending.
The proposal — which stripped budget oversight away from the independently elected county clerk/auditor and shifted it to the commission instead — passed 2-0 during a Wednesday meeting after commissioners explained they wanted a more direct pipeline for information about the county’s financial future.
But the significance of the change and its last-minute appearance at the bottom of a 32-item agenda brought down condemnation from employees in the county auditor/clerks office and from officials including Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson. In a Facebook post alerting county residents about the upcoming decision, Henderson wrote that the suggested change “further consolidates the power of the county commission,” which has shrunk to just two people with the recent departure of former Commissioner Tanner Ainge.
“This should be extremely concerning to everyone,” Henderson, a resident of Spanish Fork, wrote. “In practicality, this means that essentially TWO people will be in charge of PROPOSING, VOTING ON, and EXECUTING a half a billion dollar budget! That’s insane, and completely out of alignment with principles of good government.”
The lieutenant governor, who served for many years as a state senator representing parts of Utah County, added that the proposed shift came forward without input from Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner, whose office is poised to lose three employees and its budgetary functions.
“Why was this issue never brought up until now, and why is it buried down on line 28 of tomorrow’s agenda?” Henderson wrote.
Gardner wrote on Facebook that she opposed the move, even though it would increase her own power if she’s successful in her bid to replace Ainge on the county commission.
“I’m not sure why they are doing this,” she said of the sitting commissioners. “But I think it’s a frightening idea to have all the creation and oversight of the budget in one single department. ... I think separation of powers and checks and balances is very important.”
From the federal government all the way down to city and town leaders, budget functions are typically divided between different departments so that there’s accountability in the way tax revenues and other public funds are spent, Gardner said. Utah County has historically done this by empowering commissioners to pass the budget but tasking the elected auditor/clerk with executing the plan.
The commission’s proposal would erase these checks, she said.
“It’s kind of like saying, what’s the difference between illegal and ethical?” Gardner said in a Wednesday interview. “This is not an illegal move — it just violates best practices and standards.”
Utah County’s most recent general budget called for about $100 million in spending, but if all county accounts and budgets are included, the total soars above $500 million, she said.
Gardner said Commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich haven’t reached out to her or the impacted employees about their plan, and the only conversation she’s had with them happened because she initiated it. The “major structural change” also moved ahead at lightning speed, she said, with the proposal revealed to the public about a day before Wednesday’s meeting and slated to take effect Saturday.
“My office is right across from yours,” Gardner said during Wednesday’s meeting. “You could’ve used a signal mirror to tell me.”
Sakievich, who brought forward the proposal, said he regrets not having contacted Gardner and explained that he’d had his hands full with the vaccination rollout and other pressing matters. Still, he argued that he and Lee should push forward because of the urgent need for synergies between budget managers and the county commission.
Though he didn’t add the issue to the agenda, Lee acknowledged that he moved it to the bottom of the list because it’s controversial. Issues expected to elicit extensive public comment are often scheduled for discussion later in a meeting to avoid holding up county employees and residents interested in other items, he said.
He explained that he and Sakievich want to bring county budget employees under their supervision because they feel stonewalled by the clerk/auditor’s office. As the two commissioners attempt to roll back a 2019 tax hike, they’ve pressed budget employees for data and an analysis of how reduced revenues might affect county departments and services. They haven’t gotten it, Lee said.
“I don’t understand why the clerk/auditor’s office is trying to combat that,” he said. “Why do they not want us to have the information?”
Gardner said that’s not true — and that her office wasn’t able to find a single commissioner query that has gone unanswered this year. Just last week, her office sent them a memo describing their efforts to craft a multiyear budget model of the very sort that Lee said he wanted. Gardner sent The Salt Lake Tribune a copy of the memo, in which finance officials also offered to “provide a demonstration of this model” at an upcoming commission meeting.
Former Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie also spoke during Wednesday’s meeting to say he never had trouble getting information from the clerk/auditor’s office during his time in an elected role. And Ainge weighed in on Twitter after the vote.
“Treating the budget staff like this is a new low for a commission that continues to be light on competency & heavy on misleading political stunts / empty rhetoric,” he wrote. “Good governance, reason, trust in the workplace and long-term fiscal health are in constant jeopardy with these two.”
In response to Henderson’s Facebook post, Lee noted that the commission already shapes a county spending plan and argued that shifting budget employees would enable them to better execute the responsibilities already in their purview.
But Henderson wasn’t the only official who saw the move as undermining a proper balance of power.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, a Utah County resident, called the proposal a “power grab,” while State Auditor John Dougall faulted the commission for considering a “significant change with minimal notice and lacking in-depth discussion.”
“There are important reasons we have divided county government,” he wrote on Facebook.
And one individual who testified against the change Wednesday said she was disturbed by the internal conflicts that the issue has clearly revealed inside Utah County’s government.
“The role of leadership is to sit down with their employees in advance so no one is caught off guard,” she said. “There will always be differences of opinion, but there should never be surprises. There’s no tax break worth this.”
The debate follows a recent political shift on the Utah County Commission, which moved to the right with the departure of Ainge, who was seen as the panel’s most moderate member. Sakievich and Lee, two conservative politicians, now control the agenda and direction of the commission.
In addition to voting on the transfer of powers away from Gardner’s office, the commissioners also designated Rudy Livingston as the county’s new budget officer. The position is similar to his current role as county budget manager, although the commissioners will now replace Gardner as his supervisor.
While Livingston said he was honored for the consideration but said the promotion would lessen his enjoyment of the job.
“I’m an ethical person,” he said. “I am offended that the commissioners obviously believe that I will perform my duties differently under the direction of the commission than I would under the direction of financial services at clerk/auditor.”
Josh Daniels, chief deputy clerk in Gardner’s office, told commissioners on Wednesday that 24 of Utah’s 29 counties have designated the auditor as the county budget officer.