For the second consecutive year, Tooele County government’s budget troubles and fiscal recovery efforts have earned it the top news story of 2013 in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. During the past 12 months, we reported 38 stories and published 14 editorials on the topic.
It seems fitting then that our last editorial of 2013 is again about our county government and its collection and use of taxpayer money and related funds. After all that occurred during the year, it would have been satisfying to write a year-end editorial that acknowledged county leaders for their thankless, yet necessary work to repair the county’s budget.
Regrettably, that editorial will have to wait. A recent choice by the Tooele County Commission hints that inconsistencies and questions about the county’s budget and financial recovery plan may still remain. If not, then at the very least, the commissioners have an unusual sense of timing.
Published on page A-1 in last Thursday’s edition, “County workers, officials will get year-end bonuses,” is unlike any county-related budget story we’ve written in more than 15 months. It reported that the commissioners had granted a 2 percent year-end bonus for all workers and elected officials based on their total wages earned during 2013.
According to Commission Chairman Bruce Clegg, the bonuses totaled approximately $200,000. According to Commissioner Shawn Milne, the bonuses were made possible because the county’s “financial recovery plan is working.” He also referred to the year-end pay out as a “retention bonus” to encourage employees to stay with the county.
Although county employees may deserve a bonus after going years without cost of living and merit pay increases, and won’t receive a cost of living increase next year according to the 2014 budget, the year-end payout is unexpected news that prompts feelings of bewilderment, disappointment—and for some local taxpayers, anger.
Such rancor is understandable. For details, just read today’s story about the county’s budget woes on page A-1. It summarizes the county’s financial crisis during the past 15 months, and more specifically, this year. During 2013, citizens watched the county government struggle on the verge of financial collapse, causing more than 100 employee layoffs, service cuts, department terminations, facility closures and event cancellations. They also were on the receiving end of the first $2.6 million county property tax increase in 27 years.
It was thought the increase would cover the county’s budget needs for a year or more. But just two months after that increase was approved, the commissioners announced their intent to implement a new $1.5 million Municipal Services Tax to help pay for services in unincorporated areas.
Because of the county’s well-known budget struggles, the tax increase last August, the new Municipal Services Tax, and several closed county programs, services and facilities that await funding, the bonus pay-out to county employees at this time defies logic.
It also has to be a smack in the face to the 100-plus county employees who were laid off this year.