Facing public outcry, Utah County commissioners backpedal on budget office takeover

They say they intend to leave these duties with the clerk/auditor’s office.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Utah County Commission Chair Bill Lee, right, starts a commission meeting Tuesday Dec. 12 in Provo.

Utah County’s two commissioners are abandoning their effort to take complete budgetary control almost as hastily as they initiated it.

On Friday, just a couple days after their controversial vote to seize the clerk/auditor’s budget oversight duties, the commissioners released separate statements announcing they intend to halt those changes.

Commissioner Bill Lee said after “careful consideration and deliberation with legislators,” he’s decided to reverse course and put an indefinite pause on the proposal to bring county budget employees under the commission’s supervision.

The move had drawn condemnation from a number of high-ranking state officials, including Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson who called it an “insane” consolidation of power in the hands of a few and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who labeled it a “power grab.” Elected leaders also criticized the commissioners for placing the decision on the agenda barely 24 hours before Wednesday’s vote, leaving the public with little opportunity to digest and respond to the major shift.

Lee had argued the overhaul was necessary because he wasn’t getting the budgetary information he was seeking as he pushes forward with repealing the tax increase passed in 2019. Those concerns had apparently dissipated by Friday, when he expressed confidence that “the Utah County Commission will receive the full and impartial budget information we need as we seek to responsibly reduce the massive property tax increase.”

Commissioner Tom Sakievich said he also supports reversing Wednesday’s decision based on “further dialogue” with the clerk/auditor’s staff. His goal has always been to “keep county government limited, restrained, and balanced,” he said in a prepared statement.

Next week’s commission meeting agenda will include an item to keep the budget office under the purview of County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner — who has strenuously denied that her employees have ever withheld information from the elected leaders. She said she can’t find evidence of any queries that have gone unanswered and shared a memo showing that her staff has prepared budget forecasts in response to requests from the commission.

Gardner had opposed the proposed budget office shift, arguing it would eliminate important checks and balances on how the county spends more than half a billion dollars in public funds. The commission, which has shrunk to just two people with the recent departure of former Commissioner Tanner Ainge, would have control over the planning, passage and execution of the budget if the office relocated, she noted.

Though the two commissioners forged ahead with the change Wednesday over objections from Utah County residents and Gardner’s staff, the clerk/auditor applauded Lee and Sakievich for reconsidering the decision.

“I think this separation of powers makes for good government,” she said. “And I’m very proud of our commissioners for coming to the table.”

Gardner chalked up Lee’s dissatisfaction with her office up to a miscommunication; the commissioner had been asking her office for policy advice and saw her staff’s clarifying questions as a form of pushback. Open dialogue with her office over the past couple of days has helped Lee “understand that our responses to him were not stonewalling but really to help better understand what his wants were.”

“I think that gives us the ability to work together going forward,” Gardner said of the recent clarifying conversations.

Friday’s reversal announcement followed a meeting earlier in the day between the commissioners, Utah State Auditor John Dougall and Sen. Curt Bramble. In a phone interview, Bramble said it was clear that a communication disconnect between Gardner and the two Utah County commissioners had contributed to this week’s sequence of events.

“It was equally clear that the decision was causing a great deal of contention and controversy. A lot of criticism was being thrown at Utah County,” the Provo Republican said. “Whether it’s the decision or the way the decision came down, it doesn’t matter. It’s just it was problematic.”

Reached by phone, Dougall said only that he thought the commissioners were wise for backtracking.

“I think it’s good for them to hit pause to have broader discussions and pull folks together to talk through what the issues are and to better engage the public as they’re moving forward,” Dougall said.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, Dougall faulted the commission for considering a “significant change with minimal notice and lacking in-depth discussion” and said there are “important reasons we have divided county government.”

Years ago, Bramble sponsored the very state law that Utah County commissioners were trying to use on Wednesday — a provision that enabled county leaders to take the budget officer role away from the clerk/auditor.

Bramble on Friday said his 2012 bill was a response to a situation in Salt Lake County, where the auditor at the time was trying to “set the agenda for the county” by controlling the budget, even though that role should rightfully belong to the legislative body. Budget functions are still separated in Salt Lake County, though, since certain duties belong to the mayor and others to the council.

But Sakievich on Wednesday interpreted this state law to mean that legislators wanted county commissions to assign a budget officer who would report to them. Gardner’s staff argued against this reading of the statute, reporting that 24 of Utah’s 29 counties still rely on the auditor as the budget officer.

Uintah County is one of the few that takes a different approach, with its commissioners stripping the clerk/auditor of budget oversight duties in October 2019 and creating a position for a budget officer who answered to them. They’re now contemplating taking away the clerk/auditor’s accounting functions, too, and transferring them to the budget officer.