If this year’s presidential contest is all about the economy, it seems this year’s county commission race is all about the budget.
The county commission candidate that wins the election will take office in January and immediately be faced with a budget for 2013 that was approved in December. At that point, they’ll hope to not be facing another year of fiscal tumult like 2012.
This year’s budget was originally 8.4 percent higher than the 2011 county budget.
Tooele County Auditor Mike Jensen explained in December 2011 when the budget was approved that the increase was due to $2 million in expenses for the new jail to be offset by a corresponding increase in jail fee revenue, a $1.3 million increase in jet fuel sales at the Wendover airport, and a 1.5 percent cost of living salary increase for county employees — the first such increase in three years.
By the end of August, the county building was reeling as commissioners called long-time county employees to their offices to tell them that their jobs would be eliminated. The reasons: Mitigation fees were down by nearly one half from the budgeted forecast for 2012 and the $2 million in jail fees never materialized. That left commissioners staring at a prospective $4 million gap between expenses and income by the end of the year.
Entire departments and dozens of employees were surprised when they heard the news and found themselves eliminated in an effort to balance the budget.
Republican county commission candidate Shawn Milne has been critical of the decisions made by current commissioners that led them down the road to the current financial crisis.
“The commission could have made more Spartan choices in financing and spending much earlier in the economic downturn,” said Milne. “They could have changed their spending patterns and done more with less.”
Milne is particularly critical of the decision in 2008 to bond for $2.3 million to add a convention center on to the indoor rodeo arena at Deseret Peak Complex.
“I don’t agree with the ‘if you build it they will come’ attitude that justified the convention center at a time when the economy was hitting people hard,” said Milne.
Milne also believes the decision to build the $25 million county jail without competitive bidding was a mistake.
“We may have needed a new jail,” said Milne. “But we may not have needed such a large facility and by not taking bids we may have need up paying an additional $2 to $4 million.”
Milne also questions the expense for expanding horseshoe pits at Deseret Peak and wonders why more frugal decisions were not made earlier.
While the county employed a soft-hiring freeze to reduce staff by attrition, Milne said he would have proposed offering early retirement like Tooele City did for its employees in 2009 to help reduce staff.
Colleen Johnson, a two-term incumbent who is trying to retain her seat on the commission through a write-in candidacy, defends the commission’s actions and explains that the county did trim expenses from the budget.
“Some people think we just sat and watched revenue go down and did nothing until now,” said Johnson. “That is not true. We saw revenue declining and instituted a hiring freeze back in 2009. We also asked department heads to trim 5 to 15 percent from their budgets in travel, training, supplies and other non-personnel items.”
Looking back with hindsight, Johnson said the county could have started laying people off earlier instead of hoping for the hiring freeze and attrition to reduce expenses.
She defends the new jail as a necessity because the old jail was overcrowded and did not meet new federal regulations, she said. The new jail, with a capacity for 250 prisoners, has a fluctuating population, but recently the population in the jail was as high as 170 with 50 of those being federal prisoners, which the federal government pays the county to house, said Johnson.
“It took a while but we are beginning to see revenue coming in from federal prisoners to help with the budget for the jail,” said Johnson.
Commissioners have been criticized for using annually fluctuating mitigation fees to balance the county budget. Johnson counters that mitigation fees are placed in the county’s general fund and state law limits the maximum amount that can be held in the general fund balance from year to year. Also, without using mitigation fees as a rainy-day fund during the economic downturn, the county would have been forced to raise taxes to continue to provide basic services, Johnson said.
Johnson refuses to discuss what areas of the budget she proposes to cut in 2013 to make forecasted revenue meet expenses.
“It is too early in the process to say anything,” said Johnson. “We are still in the discussion phase with department heads.”
George Young, the Democratic candidate for county commission, supports the recent budget cuts made by county commissioners.
“It is a tough decision to make, to let employees go,” said Young. “I have been there in my business experience, and it is hard.”
Young said he believes the commissioners have done what is necessary to balance the budget and bring expenses in line with revenue.
However, Young, like Milne, is critical of earlier spending decisions made by the commission.
“I think they could have paid better attention to expenses,” said Young. “The could have been more frugal in their purchasing and building expenses.”
Young agrees that building the new jail without competitive bidding was a mistake.
“I know from experience that as a contractor that competitive building always gets you lower costs,” said Young.
Young said if he had been on the commission he would have resisted the temptation to dip into mitigation fees to balance the budget, and instead tried to cut costs in every department.
All three candidates do not support adding back departments or staff that were cut in 2012 to the 2013 budget, including the county engineer, economic development, and the hazmat team. They also agree that the 2013 budget does need to include expenses for economic development, but not a separate stand-alone county department to perform the function.
Young proposes the creation of a countywide economic development organization that would have its own board and include the county and all the cities in the county. The organization would present a united effort and vision for economic development in the county and share expenses.
Johnson believes that contracting out for economic development services as needed is the best way to go, including dues already being paid to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah.
Milne, who believes the county needs to get far more aggressive in pursuing economic development, is encouraged by Tooele City’s offer to help out with economic development for the remainder of this year, and is interested in pursuing a dialogue with Tooele City about economic development after the first of the new year.
Voters going to the polls will see Young and Milne’s name on the ballot. To vote for Johnson voters must select “write-in,” which will bring up a keyboard and then they can type in Johnson’s name. Exact spelling is not required.
Early voting locations and times as well as poll locations and times for Election Day can be found at the Tooele County Clerk’s website at www.co.tooele.ut.us/clerk.