The Tooele County Commission’s vote last week to consolidate four county elected offices into two to reportedly save money, is the second major budget recovery decision since last summer in which the commissioners mostly opted to keep citizens in the dark.
Remember last summer? The highly publicized county financial recovery plan? The five town hall meetings? And the unprecedented openness the commissioners created while informing citizens as to why they wanted to impose a $2.6 million tax increase to boost the county’s cash-strapped budget?
But after the commissioners approved that tax hike last August, everything changed. Last fall they announced their intent to impose a Municipal Services Tax on unincorporated areas of the county to help pay for law enforcement and other municipal-related services. But this time, there were no explanatory town hall meetings to inform taxpayers as how the tax would be used to keep the county’s financial recovery plan on track.
Although not yet formally adopted, the commissioners have set a $1.5 million cap for the municipal services tax. If levied this coming June at $1.5 million, the tax will cost a $150,000 homeowner in unincorporated areas about $62 per year.
The steps the commissioners have taken so far regarding the new tax starkly contrasts with their public transparency they established last summer. And now last week’s budget recovery related decision erodes it even more. In a 2-1 vote, by 2015 the commissioners will combine the county’s clerk and auditor offices into one office, and likewise for the recorder and surveyor offices.
When voters go to the polls this November, they will elect one clerk/auditor and one recorder/surveyor. The commissioners say the consolidation will increase efficiency and save the county a projected $190,000 a year. Opponents say otherwise.
Although the commissioners by law have the authority to consolidate those four offices without public input, the way in which they made the change reveals there are limits to their transparency. When the consolidation was announced last fall, the commissioners offered no plan or cost/benefit analysis to the public.
When pressed for information about the plan at subsequent meetings and by the media, the commissioners maintained secrecy. Even at a Council of Governments meeting earlier this month, during which elected officials from local municipalities pleaded for an explanation, the commissioners offered none.
But finally, the day before last Tuesday’s public hearing on the consolidation, Commissioner Shawn Milne broke rank and published the plan on social media. That plan, which purports the $190,000 savings, was published in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin last Tuesday. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be published until the same day of the public hearing.
The consolidation plan was discussed by the commission at last Tuesday’s public hearing. But citizens in attendance, who hadn’t previously seen the plan on social media or in this newspaper, heard it for the first time there — and only minutes before the commissioners took comment.
For such a plan devised to help save the county money, and arguably a plan that also reduces representation within county government, how the commissioners handled it wasn’t one of their better moments. Is it possible that last summer’s unprecedented openness by the commissioners was not only temporary, but an illusion?