The Utah County Commission on Wednesday approved a staffing change moving county budget staff from under the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office to under the commission, despite county officials, budget staff and residents calling the move a “power grab” that “should be extremely concerning to everyone.”

The staffing plan change in question was the 28th item on the 32-item agenda for the Utah County Commission’s Wednesday meeting. It adds a full-time career service budget manager position “to the commission organization” and “remove(s) the same (position) from the clerk/auditor department.”

The change comes a week after commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich announced that they would re-evaluate the county’s 2021 budget and potentially repeal a previously approved property tax increase now that former Commissioner Tanner Ainge, the sole supporter of the increase, is out of office.

On Tuesday evening, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, a former state senator from Spanish Fork, warned Utah County residents that “tomorrow’s county commission meeting has an item buried in the agenda that further consolidates the power of the county commission (which currently only consists of two people).”

“Moving the entire budget office out from the county clerk/auditor’s office and placing it under the control of the county commission eliminates some of the very few checks and balances our county commission has,” the lieutenant governor wrote on Facebook. “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.”

Henderson added that she was “curious why this change is being proposed right now, without, at the very least, first consulting with our elected Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner.”

Gardner, who is running for the vacant commission seat and has criticized the property tax increase, wrote on Facebook that it is a “frightening idea to have all the creation and oversight of the budget in one single department.”

Other Utah County politicians expressed concern with the staffing change proposal, including Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who called it a “terrible idea” and noted that “there has been ZERO public input” on the subject.

“This should be alarming to citizens in Utah County,” McKell wrote on Facebook.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Gardner blasted Sakievich for putting the item on the meeting’s agenda at the last minute without first reaching out to her.

“Not one of you has spoken to any of the staff members that this affects, and not one of you had the courtesy to talk to me,” Gardner told the two commissioners.

Sakievich acknowledged that he “should have” reached out to the clerk/auditor’s office but said he was “pulled away” by other issues and obligations.

“But I see a need to have a synergy … within the county commission and the budgeting process,” the commissioner said. “The budgeting process belongs to the commission and is supposed to be handled directly by the commission.”

Sakievich said he put the item on the meeting’s agenda over frustration of a lack of communication between the auditor’s office and the county commission regarding budget questions and said there is a “structure issue” with the budget manager not reporting directly to the commission.

“We have kept the county commission separate from the direct budgetary responsibilities for years,” he said.

Sakievich and Lee both pointed to a 2012 state law allowing county governing bodies to determine who the budget officer is.

While Gardner acknowledged that the legal opinion that the commission could determine the budget officer was “very solid,” she added that “good government happens when sunshine is in the room.”

“The best disinfectant is sunshine, and good government happens in transparency, not in the dark shadows,” she said.

Utah County Budget Manager Rudy Livingston spoke in opposition to the staffing plan change, noting that he felt like the commissioners were treating him “as a pawn and not as a professional.”

“I’m honored that you would think me worthy of being appointed as the budget officer for the county,” said Livingston. “However, I am opposed to the erosion of the separation of powers that I see here. I’m bothered by a lot of things. I was not told about this move but found out about it when it was submitted about 15 minutes before the agenda was posted.”

He continued, “Everything was done behind closed doors, and that’s not right.”

Livingston objected to Sakievich’s claim that the auditor’s office hadn’t provided budget information to the commissioners.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” he said. “And I’ll tell you why, because this year, neither Commissioner Lee nor Commissioner Sakievich has contacted our office for budget questions, discussions of any kind of budget or financial advice, or to provide direction.”

Livingston, who the commission voted on Wednesday to name Utah County Budget Officer working under the governing body, said he was “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 the Financial Services of (the) clerk/auditor.”

“I have enjoyed my job here more in the past year than I have in the proceeding 15 years, and this is because of the leadership in our department providing clear vision, treating each of us fairly, providing guidance, but truly empowering us to use our judgment and individuality to make our jobs better and make county operations better,” he said. “And I feel that this action proposed by the commission will negatively impact how I enjoy my position.”

A number of Utah County residents spoke against the staffing plan change, including former Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who said “this is very concerning to me from a good government standpoint, because I believe good government has a separation of powers and checks and balances.”

But both commissioners said they were comfortable moving forward with the change, particularly as they look to roll back the property tax rate, something Lee said they were “dead serious” about.

“We want to have all the information, this is a vehicle to get that for us so that we can appropriately not just go through a tax reduction, but to actually look at the budget next year and maybe even do it differently,” said Lee.

After the meeting, Gardner told the Daily Herald she didn’t know of any instances of unanswered communications between budget staff and the commission.

On Friday, the clerk/auditor’s office sent a memo to the commissioners stating that the “Division of Financial Services stands ready to help you in your financial leadership role” and “look(s) forward to working with you to achieve your goal of reducing the property tax rate in conjunction with a budget amendment that keeps the County in compliance with laws and reporting standards.”

In the memo, a copy of which was provided to the Herald, Financial Services Director Jeremy Walker said that “to assist the commission in its recent decision to amend the 2021 budget, we have accelerated our efforts to complete a beta version of the multi-year budget model” that the budget team has been working on.

“This model will allow you to see the effects of potential changes to general fund revenues and expenses at a high level,” wrote Walker, who offered to “provide a demonstration of this model at your administrative meeting on March 29th.”

After the staffing plan change was approved, Ivie tweeted that “Bill Lee is the most deceitful, lying hypocritical man elected to any office in the state of Utah,” adding that “Tom (Sakievich) is not far behind him.”

“Every single public comment was against their power grab today and they did it anyway,” the former commissioner wrote.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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