Uintah County Commission signals plan to strip clerk/auditor of accounting authority

Clerk/auditor who previously decried COVID relief spending on a tubing hill warns handing over more control to commission means ‘putting the fox in the henhouse.’

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This Aug. 6, 2017, file photo shows the Book Cliffs area south of Vernal. The area has been the battleground for environmentalists and pro-development advocates who want to develop tar sands mines in the area. Uintah County commissioners are battling with the elected clerk/auditor over who has control of accounting services in the county budget, largely fueled by oil and gas-related revenues.

Uintah County’s three commissioners are considering the removal of accounting services from the clerk/auditor’s office and assigning them instead to the county’s budget officer.

At a public meeting Monday, critics argued the move gives the county’s lawmakers too much power, since the clerk/auditor is an elected position, but the budget officer is hired — and can be fired — by the commission.

“This came up for a variety of reasons but the main reason is that our checks and balances seem to have been a little out of whack,” said Commissioner Bill Stringer at the meeting, which was covered by the Uintah Basin Standard.

But county residents argued the proposal disrupted an important check on the commission’s power.

“You’re taking functions from an elected official and giving them to someone who is accountable to you,” one commenter said. “That is not a check or a balance, that is a control issue.”

The commission approved their $49.7 million annual budget earlier this month, but the county’s revenues have seen steep declines in recent years due to slumping in mineral lease funds.

Commissioners haven’t yet voted on whether to strip the clerk/auditor of accounting authority, but commission Chair Brad Horrocks told The Salt Lake Tribune a decision could come as soon as month from now.

“This would relieve some pressure off of him so he can perform audits,” Horrocks said. “I’m not aware of an audit being done in the four-plus years I’ve been here.”

In an interview, Uintah County Clerk/Auditor Michael Wilkins said he does not support removing accounting authority from his office.

“You’re taking every internal control, every check and balance system and giving it straight to the governing body,” said Wilkins, who is serving his fifth term. “There’s been times over the years that we’ve had to stand up and say ‘this isn’t right.’ An individual that reports directly to them won’t have the ability to do that, for fear of losing their job.”

Specifically, Wilkins said he publicly questioned the commissioners’ decision to spend $19,999 each on six snow guns for a controversial tubing hill paid for with federal pandemic funds. The amount paid for the machines is exactly one dollar below the threshold that would have required the county to solicit bids.

Horrocks said that Wilkins has not been forthcoming in telling commissioners how county money is used.

“He made several statements that ‘I’m not telling you commissioners where the money is, you’ll just spend it,” Horrocks said. “He’s famous for saying that.”

The commissioner added that Wilkins is “under investigation,” but would not say why or who was conducting the investigation.

“I don’t know that I want to say right now, but this investigation has been going on for a month,” Horrocks said. “I’d better not be saying any more than that.”

The Uintah commission’s clerk/auditor discussion came the same week that Utah County’s Commission stripped budget oversight from their clerk/auditor, which Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson called “insane” and Utah Sen. Jake Anderegg called a “power grab.”

Utah County commissioners reversed their decision on Friday, saying after taking input from residents they will vote next meeting on “indefinitely pausing” the change.

Uintah commissioners stripped their clerk/auditor of budget oversight in October 2019, when they created the current budget officer position.

“[Now] they would take all the accounts payable, the payroll, basically the services that I’ve been providing for the county for 34 years,” Wilkins said. “It’s just not a good idea. You’re putting the fox in the henhouse.”