The three candidates vying for one seat on the Tooele County Commission are chasing a prize with strings attached.
Whoever wins the seat will come into office following a year in which commissioners, facing a revenue shortfall, slashed $2.6 million from the county budget during the last quarter of the year by laying off employees, eliminating programs and axing entire departments. And further cuts may be necessary if revenues continue dropping.Still, that’s not detering any of the three commission hopefuls — each of whom would bring a different skill set to the job.
Shawn Milne, 35, a small business owner and Tooele City councilman, defeated incumbent county commissioner Colleen Johnson at the Tooele County Republican Convention in April to represent the party on the ballot. Milne was born in Salt Lake City and spent most of his youth in southern California. He settled in Tooele 13 years ago and started a small business, Click Audio Video, which does residential and commercial audio, home theater, phones and security. Milne has a bachelor’s degree in international business and a master’s degree in business, both from Westminster College. He is a former member of the Tooele City Planning Commission and is serving his first term on the city council.
George Young, 60, his Democratic challenger, graduated from Tooele High School in 1971 and joined the Army and served in Vietnam. Upon returning to Tooele in 1973 he worked locally as a mechanic, equipment operator, electrician and millwright. In 1997, Young went to work for Salt Lake City-based Hunt Electric, a commercial industrial, and residential electrical contracting company, where he worked as vice president of infrastructure until retiring in 2012. Young has served on the Erda planning commission and has been the assistant chief of the North Tooele County Fire District.
Colleen Johnson, 63, the incumbent who was defeated at the Republican convention, put her name back on the ballot two weeks ago when she filed as a write-in candidate. She graduated from Grantsville High School and has owned and operated Bob’s Garage and Diesel in Tooele with her husband for 30 years. Johnson was elected to the Tooele City Council in 1997 and was re-elected in 2001, serving until her election in 2004 as a county commissioner. She is now going for a third term on the commission.
Milne believes his experience as a city council member and small business owner give him the edge over his opponents. As the sole owner of his small business, Milne said he has had sole responsibility for tough business decisions.
“I have a successful and practical blend of experience in the arenas of government, non-profit organizations and business,” said Milne. “And while others can claim to being someone else’s bookkeeper or vice president, taking their cues from higher-ups, I have created budgets from projections of revenue and expenses by myself, as well as with others, and have been ultimately responsible for my business’ success or failure.”
Young says his experience working in competitive industries preparing bids for state and federal projects make him the better choice.
“I have been able to grow my organization even during one of the worst recessions,” said Young. “I finish my commitments before moving to another. This election is not a stepping stone to other ambitions.”
Young believes Milne made a four-year commitment to the people of Tooele City that he will have to leave unfulfilled to accept a seat on the county commission should he win.
Johnson said her experience on the county commission, especially dealing with recent cuts in the county budget to make expenses match current cash flow, give her valuable experience none of the other candidates can claim. Milne counters by saying the county’s spending is heading it towards insolvency — a direction he would change. And Young wants the county to start making decisions based on sound business practices, not political expediency.
Young’s top three priorities, if elected, would be to support efforts by local educational institutions, including public schools, Utah State University and Tooele Applied Technology College, to prepare Tooele County’s workforce for jobs in modern industry, to pursue private and public partnership to provide the infrastructure needed to grow and attract new industries to Tooele County, and to strengthen transparency and accountability in county government.
Milne’s top priorities are to be an assertive voice for Tooele County in regional and state matters that affect the county, to encourage economic development, and to increase government efficiency.
Johnson’s priorities include adjusting the county budget to match expenses to revenue, making adjustments for decreasing mitigation fees, and job creation through economic development.
All three candidates support increasing transparency and opportunities for public involvement in county government by holding commission meetings in the evenings instead of during the afternoon.
Johnson said she would be willing to try evening meetings, although she prefers the current afternoon schedule.
Milne and Young also said if elected they would prepare and deliver an annual State of the County address to keep the public informed on the progress and challenges of county government.
Johnson said that commissioners currently give an annual update on each of their areas of responsibility at a January commission meeting. The update provides similar information as a formal “state of” address, which is usually a presentation from the administrative branch to the legislative branch of government, Johnson said.
During the 2010 county commission campaign, county commissioner Bruce Clegg made reference during a debate to a meeting the commissioners hold before their public meetings to review items on the agenda for the public meeting. Both Milne and Young have said they discontinue that practice and conduct the public’s business in front of the public.
All three candidates agree that economic development is the key not only to creating jobs in Tooele County, but also for diversifying and growing county revenue.
When the county’s economic development department was eliminated by recent budget cuts, Milne was excited at the opportunity for the county to move forward with economic development using Randy Sant, the same out-of-house consultant Tooele City has used for economic development since 1985.
“I was very pleased, following the county’s elimination of their economic development department, that the commissioners finally accepted Tooele City’s offer to have our contractor provide these same services on behalf of the whole county,” said Milne. “Given my experience with this approach, together with candid opinions shared by other municipal and county leaders that I serve on boards and committees with, I know that this is the best option at this time and Tooele County will be well represented.”
Johnson is not sure what direction the county will take after the first of the year, but she favors working cooperatively with the city.
“There is a perception out there that we compete with each other,” said Johnson. “We really don’t, but with two duplicate departments in each government it can appear that way.”
Young believes that Tooele County and all the cities and towns in the county should work together on economic development to avoid duplication of efforts.
“All of us — Tooele County, Tooele City, Grantsville, Rush Valley, Vernon, Ophir, Ibapah and Wendover — should deal from a position of unity and trust,” said Young. “With this unity, we can deal from a position of power. It is not in any of our best interests to have duplication in economic development.”
Tooele County commissioners have remained quiet over the last few years as EnergySolutions has sought approval from state regulators to bring controversial new waste streams such as depleted uranium and blended waste to the company’s Clive facility.
Young said that while he knows that many people are employed at Clive, he cannot support new waste streams until he can be assured of their safety.
“I hope that the state will include Tooele County with their negotiations for new waste with EnergySolutions,” said Young. “I can honestly say that I am against this blending until the state and EnergySolutions can provide me with information that guarantees this will not affect my environmental concerns of clean air and clean ground water.”
Milne does not oppose new waste streams for Clive, but puts his confidence in state and federal regulators.
“I’ve toured the EnergySolutions facility at Clive four times in the past few years,” said Milne. “I’ve never seen a cesspool of toxic waste out there, leaking 55 gallon drums, or experienced caustic smells. Instead, I’ve seen nicely groomed dirt piles, a lot of rail cars and heavy machinery like at any construction site, witnessed normal folks working hard, and several job site trailers occupied by government regulators that are on site each and every day. I trust those regulators, both state and federal, to do their jobs and ensure that the site continues to safely and responsibly meet the letter of the laws already on the books.”
Johnson has no problem with depleted uranium and blended waste coming to Clive, as long as it is Class A waste.
“Class A waste is Class A waste,” said Johnson. “That’s what EnergySolutions is licensed to take.”
None of the candidates support a tax increase to balance the county’s precarious budget.
Milne refuses to blame the economy entirely for the county’s current budget woes.
“The economy can only be blamed so much and then focus needs to turn inward and towards better planning and management of money,” said Milne. “The decisions that have been made at the county level have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We simply need to be more disciplined with how taxes are spent.”
Young agrees that county expenditures need greater scrutiny.
“I will have one criteria: Does the cost of the department provide a return on investment in benefits to the citizens?” said Young. “However, there are many services that we are required by law to provide — that is the very essence of government.”
Milne would limit any discussion of a tax increase to avoiding imminent bankruptcy or after a voter-approved ballot measure. Young said he would only consider a tax increase if, after all possible efforts to reduce expenses, the county is still unable to pay for services it is required to provide by statute.
Johnson also prefers not to raise taxes, but if after the county has made all the cuts it can make but still cannot fund essential county services, Johnson would consider a tax increase.
The Deseret Peak Complex’s continuing operating deficit will be a target for both Milne and Young.
“The $1.8 million annual subsidy of Deseret Peak is too much,” said Milne. “The fact is the folks using the facility aren’t paying the required prices for the services and programs that the facility provides. We need to capitalize on our strengths and use the facility as a magnet for more tourism and recreation dollars. It needs to get a lot closer to paying for itself.” Young said the county can’t just abandon the Deseret Peak Complex, a facility the county invested $20 million in building, so a way must be found to operate the complex more efficiently.
“I would like to look at their staff and event ratio for the number of events that are produced at the complex,” said Young. “There may be a smarter and more fiscally responsible way of managing Deseret Peak, while still providing the excellent service we have come to expect of this facility.”
Johnson said the county is currently reviewing operations and revenue at Deseret Peak and is considering raising fees to help close that gap between revenue and expenses at the complex.
Additional information about the candidates can be found on Milne’s Facebook page, Shawn Milne for Tooele County Commissioner, at Young’s website, georgeyoung4tooele.com, and on Johnson’s Facebook page, Colleen S. Johnson.