The Utah County Commission hit pause on Friday on a controversial staffing change that officials criticized as a “power grab” that “should be extremely concerning to everyone.”
On Wednesday, commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich approved a staffing change moving county budget staff from under the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office to under the commission. The move was widely criticized as an erosion of the separation of powers, including by Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner.
On Friday, Lee told the Daily Herald that he is placing an item on the agenda of the commission’s April 7 meeting “to put a pause on the actions that we took last Wednesday.”
“I would like to see us put this on a pause, get people together,” he said. “There are issues, and there’s probably issues (on) both sides that need to be addressed ... and as we get together and kind of iron them out, I think that we’ll wind up in a better place going forward.”
Lee, who noted that the change had technically already gone into effect but “nothing’s really been done,” said he notified Gardner on Friday afternoon that the commission would be hitting pause on the change.
The two commissioners made the change after complaining about a breakdown of communication between the commission and budget staff as they look to amend the 2021 budget and roll back a 2019 property tax increase.
“The budgeting process belongs to the commission and is supposed to be handled directly by the commission,” Sakievich said during Wednesday’s meeting, citing a 2012 bill giving a county’s legislative body the authority to appoint a budget officer.
But the sponsor of that bill, Republican Provo Sen. Curt Bramble, told the Daily Herald on Thursday he believed the commission’s action was not in line with the intent of the law and that the Utah State Legislature “likely will be revisiting” the law “to have a discussion about it, because what’s happened in Utah County was never anticipated in the statute.”
Bramble, Utah State Auditor John Dougall and other officials met with the county commissioners on Friday morning and expressed their concerns with the staff change.
In a written statement on Friday afternoon, Lee said that “after careful consideration and deliberation with legislators, I support indefinitely pausing the action taken on Wednesday regarding the budget office, and I have placed an item on next week’s Commission meeting agenda that will do just that.
“This means that the budget office would remain under the supervision of the Utah County Auditor,” the commissioner said.
The resolution, which Lee placed on the meeting’s agenda on Friday afternoon, states that the commission “desires to rescind the action … designating Rudy Livingston as the Utah County Budget Officer, to allow for time to further deliberate, study, and receive input regarding the proper designation of the Utah County Budget Officer.
“After the discussions I have had over the past couple of days, I now feel confident 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 of 2019,” Lee said in his statement. “I look forward to working with the budget office in achieving that goal.”
When asked for his response to the widespread criticism of the staff change, Lee told the Herald that “without fully hearing our side, the criticism can easily be seen,” adding that “there’s definitely more to the story.”
Sakievich said in a written statement that “after further dialogue with the Clerk/Auditor staff to find ways to reduce the $19.4M property tax increase, I intend to pause the action of moving the Budget Department to the Commission Office.”
Gardner, who called the change a “frightening idea” and rejected the claim that there had been unanswered communications between budget staff and the commission, said she was “very encouraged” by the commission’s decision to back away from the change.
“I’m happy that they’re willing to have open communication and to do things out in the sunshine,” Gardner told the Herald on Friday. “I’m very encouraged that we can come to a good conclusion and that we can have good government for the people of Utah County.”