Amelia Powers Gardner became Utah County’s newest commissioner and the first woman to hold that role after an inauguration ceremony Thursday.
In a short speech after she took her oath of office, Powers Gardner’s voice broke as she described growing up in Utah County, raised by a single mother, sometimes experiencing bouts of homelessness. Now she holds one of the county’s most prominent leadership positions.
“Please know this gives me special insight and compassion for those who struggle,” she said. “It helps me stay focused, and it helps me to know the potential that lies in every one of us.”
Powers Gardner is not new to elected office — she served as the county’s clerk/auditor before Republican Party officials selected her to replace Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who resigned in March.
She introduced a number of reforms in her two years as clerk/auditor, including making elections more efficient and streamlining some services. Powers Gardner said she intends to bring that forward-thinking approach to other aspects of the county as she joins Commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich in administering its government.
The newly minted commissioner spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday about the challenges Utah County has ahead and how she plans to address them. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the top issue facing Utah County as you take office?
I think the biggest issue facing Utah County is growth. In the last decade, we grew by 25%, and I don’t think we prepared well for that growth. We’ve been reactive instead of proactive.
Utah County has a booming economy, two major universities and it’s one of the best places in the world to raise a family. I want it to stay that way. We need to do the best we can to keep Utah County as a place the world sees as a vibrant community.
But over the next decade, we’re slated to grow another 25%-30%. We need to have a more proactive approach. That means we need to look at transit and transportation. We need to look at water. We need to embrace innovation and partner with the world-class companies at Silicon Slopes.
What does it mean to you to be the first woman who has served on the County Commission? And why do you think it has taken this long for a woman to have a seat at that table?
It’s a great question. It’s shocking to me, too, that it’s taken until 2021, particularly here in Utah County, where we have so many amazing women who have held leadership roles both in elected office and in the community. Former U.S. Rep. Mia Love is from Utah County. Our lieutenant governor, Deidre Henderson, is from Utah County. The late Becky Lockhart — who was Utah’s first female Speaker of the House and so revered — she, too, was from Utah County.
So I’m not sure why it has taken so long for a woman to be elected to the commission. Really, it’s an honor to be able to represent the thousands of amazing women in Utah County and to have that perspective heard.
Given your familiarity with the county’s finances, what are your thoughts about your fellow commissioners’ push to undo the tax increase from a few years ago?
Circumstances have changed. We received quite a lot of money from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and we’re getting more from the American Rescue Plan. That will help us with infrastructure and IT — things that have been ignored for decades.
I think I can find some common ground with my fellow commissioners when it comes to the 2019 tax increase. But I don’t support repealing it all the way, because Utah County has been deficit spending for years. In 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 we had a deficit, and that was in a booming economy. It’s unsustainable.
Utah County was the only county that had not had a tax increase after the Truth in Taxation legislation went into effect in 1986. I think a little bit of an adjustment was absolutely necessary in order to continue to give exceptional service to our citizens.
Utah County is slated to receive about $123 million from the American Rescue Plan. Are there specific projects where you’d like to see that money spent?
Something that needs to be done, and has needed to be done for years, are capital projects. The HVAC system in our county building, for example, is old and outdated. I have employees who bring blankets in the winter because the heat doesn’t work. If we use those funds to fix that now, it will actually save us money down the road because we won’t have to tax people over time to do it.
The other big thing we need to do is really invest in innovation. We are the home of Silicon Slopes and all these tech companies. But to get county services, you still have to show up in person, use paper and a pen to fill out a form on a clipboard, which we then give to an employee to type up. That’s outdated. While I was clerk/auditor, we introduced a popular online marriage license portal. Couples from all over the state were able to use their cell phones and get licenses from us, even as their local clerk’s office closed due to the pandemic.
Moving forward, I would like to use some of the rescue act money so people can get permits, licenses and information from the county through an online portal.
One of the portfolios you’ll be overseeing is the county health department. Coronavirus vaccination demand in Utah is beginning to slow, including in Utah County, and we’re nowhere close to reaching herd immunity. Last week, for example, the county had thousands of unfilled appointments. What can the county do to improve vaccination uptake?
I would like to see private doctors’ offices and clinics start to be able to provide vaccines. One of the reasons I think some people are not getting vaccinated is due to the concept of reaching out to the county, making an appointment then coming to a county facility. In residents’ mind, it’s a disrupter in their day. But if they’re already at their doctor’s office, they’ll be more willing to get vaccinated.
As you mentioned earlier, you don’t fully agree with your fellow commissioners’ plans to undo the county’s property tax hike. You’re also taking office just a few weeks after they tried to strip your budget authority as clerk/auditor — a decision they ultimately reversed due to public outcry. What do you expect the dynamic to be like on the commission this year? Will there be more clashes?
I find that as you begin working with someone, or even if you’ve worked with someone for years, the most important thing is to find areas where you agree.
If we start there, I think we can form a good relationship. I have worked with Commissioner Bill Lee for years as clerk/auditor. Maybe we’ve both been so busy doing our jobs, there hasn’t been as much communication as there should be, but I want to work on areas where we agree and make progress.