Facing deficit, Utah County Commission continues budget discussion to next week
The Utah County Commission discussed the upcoming year’s budget during Wednesday’s commission meeting as the county approaches a deficit year.
The commission did not vote to approve the budget on Wednesday as Commissioner Tom Sakievich was absent. The government body will continue budget discussions and vote next week at the Dec. 13 commission meeting.
As the budget stands, the county will be operating with a $10.6 million deficit for the general fund for next year, requiring it to pull money from its fund balance, or “rainy day” fund.
“2024 is going to be a rainy year,” said Jeremy Walker, the director of financial services in the county auditor’s office.
Since the county auditor first presented the tentative 2024 budget this fall, they have been able to eliminate 30 open employee positions, reduce budget requests from departments and, in some cases, increase fees for services to help mitigate the deficit.
Through the work that had been done, Walker noted that the projected use of the fund balance had been reduced from $14.2 million to the $10.6 million deficit that was discussed in the meeting. Eliminating open positions took compensation increases from more than 8% down to 6%, Walker said, and the Utah County Health Department had significantly reduced its projected operating deficit for next year by $4.1 million.
Commission Chair Amelia Powers Gardner on Wednesday also suggested cutting several more unfilled and open staff positions.
The biggest disagreement between commissioners was regarding a budget request from the Utah County Public Defenders Association. Sakevich, who wasn’t present, had approved a $3.7 million increase for the association, Commissioner Brandon Gordon approved around $400,000 and Powers Gardner did not approve any increase.
During a previous commission meeting, representatives from the association presented new national workforce standards for public defenders and explained under the new standards, the county needed to significantly increase the number of public defenders as well as funding.
But in a previous interview with the Daily Herald, Powers Gardner spoke against this ask from the association, saying, “We don’t look at national standards when it comes to workload because we (the county) do so much more with less.” The topic will be discussed further at the next commission meeting.
The two commissioners also debated the Utah County Sheriff’s Office budget, with Gordon and Powers Gardner disagreeing slightly on where to allocate funds and how much.
Powers Gardner noted she didn’t want to “micromanage” the sheriff’s office, which falls under another independently elected official, Sheriff Mike Smith. She also added that the county couldn’t fund everything the department wanted, but she still wanted to give those in the department with public safety expertise the ability to allocate funds as they see fit.
The commission decided to continue the discussion on the sheriff’s budget for next week to allow commissioners to discuss it further and receive input from Sakevich.
While tax revenue is mathematically positive, Walker, who provided the presentation from the auditor’s office, said sales tax is only projected to be up 2% compared to the historical average of 3% to 5%, and property tax revenue is up 3% compared to historical averages of 4% to 5%.
Property tax does not account for inflation, which has been on the rise nationally, and a slowing economy has harmed sales tax revenue, Walker said.
Sales tax revenue in the county over the last two years has been significantly higher than average, with 2021 seeing a 20% increase and 2022 increasing by about 13%, according to numbers presented in the meeting.
The current projections shown on Wednesday show the budget deficit is likely to continue into 2025.
While a majority of Wednesday’s discussion centered on a not-so-rosy financial picture, the two commissioners and county Budget Manager Rudy Livingston took a few minutes at the end to thank county employees who worked to tighten the budget where they could.
“This has been the second-most stressful year I’ve had because we’ve had to cut so much,” Powers Gardner said, but she continued on to thank the staff within the auditor’s office for their work.
Livingston extended a thank you to all three commissioners for how they’ve handled crafting the upcoming budget.
“I want to thank you so that the public knows,” he said. “All three commissioners were really engaged in this process this year. … This hasn’t been the case over the last couple of years.”