High-ranking state officials as well as local leaders from Utah County are seething at a Wednesday vote by county commissioners to sweep budget oversight away from the county’s independently elected clerk/auditor and place it solely under the commission.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who lives in Spanish Fork, called it “insane,” “extremely concerning to everyone” and “completely out of alignment with principles of good government” in a Facebook post the evening before the vote. State Auditor John Dougall also posted on Facebook he was “very concerned” about the commission’s move, noting there are “important reasons we have divided county government.” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, both called it a “power grab” in posts of their own.
The move puzzled and frustrated Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner, who is in the midst of her own bid to fill the commission vacancy left by former Commissioner Tanner Ainge. Before the vote, she urged Commissioners Bill Lee and Tom Sakievich not to move forward, blasting them for putting it on their agenda with barely 24 hours notice and without a single conversation about it with her.
“Good governance happens when sunshine is in the room. The best disinfectant is sunshine, and good government happens in transparency, not in the dark shadows. Not one of you has spoken to any of the staff members that this affects, and not one of you had the courtesy to talk to me,” Gardner told Lee and Sakievich.
“This went on (the agenda) minutes before the statutory deadline, without so much as a conversation, a text message, or a phone call. Tom, my office is right across from yours. You could have used a signal mirror to tell me,” she said.
Sakievich, who spearheaded the proposal, acknowledged he did not reach out to discuss the matter with Powers Gardner, saying he was busy with other matters including vaccine rollout. Although he said he couldn’t “undo the fact that I didn’t reach out” to her and “that was my fault,” Sakievich moved ahead with the vote anyway.
“I still come to the conclusion there needs to be a budgeting process actually physically present and have that synergy exist within the county commission,” Sakievich said.
Lee agreed with Sakievich, saying it’s completely within the commission’s prerogative to have budgetary oversight, and formalizing that oversight within its office “will allow us instead of going through hoops or going through bureaucratic processes or anything of that nature, that will allow us to walk right into that office and say, ‘This is what I need to do my job.’”
Lee and Sakievich have been vocal opponents of a 2019 property tax increase approved by previous commissioners. At that time, Lee was the minority voice opposing the tax hike, with then-Commissioners Nathan Ivie and Tanner Ainge supporting it. They saw the tax hike as a way to put Utah County on a more sustainable financial path and address years of “irresponsible management” by previous county officials who let the tax rate decrease year after year and chip into the county’s purchasing power.
Sakievich, in his successful 2020 campaign against Ivie, promised to pursue a rollback of the tax hike.
Ivie, in a seething tweet posted Wednesday after the vote, called Lee “the most deceitful, lying hypocritical man elected to any office in the state of Utah. Tom is not far behind him.”
Lee, asked about Ivie’s comments, only said he wished Ivie “the best of luck into the future.”
“I always know that when it goes personal, it’s never solution-oriented,” Lee said. “It’s just very critical, so I just wish him the best.”
Ainge, who resigned earlier this month, was also critical of his former commission colleagues, tweeting Thursday: “Treating the budget staff like this is a new low for a commission that continues to be light on competency and heavy on misleading political stunts/empty rhetoric. Good governance, reason, trust in the workplace and long-term fiscal health are in constant jeopardy with these two.”
Powers Gardner said in an interview with the Deseret News on Thursday she still doesn’t understand why the commissioners felt the move was necessary, noting that she and Utah County Budget Manager Rudy Livingston have kept their doors and phone lines wide open for the commissioners.
“The justification they give doesn’t compute with the facts,” she said.
She shared an email thread with the Deseret News showing Livingston included both Lee and Sakievich on a Nov. 9 email seeking input from the commissioners on any changes to the 2021 final budget and requesting a response “right away,” under pressures from the statutory requirement to adopt a budget prior to Dec. 31. Nine days later, on Nov. 18, Lee requested a budget that anticipated a $3 million, $6 million or $9 million reduction in revenue.
In response to Lee’s Nov. 18 email, Livingston requested more guidance on Lee’s request for budget cuts before he could proceed and before a meeting planned that Friday between himself, Powers Gardner and Lee. Livingston sought clarification on what revenue streams the tax cut would come from, whether to consider one-time revenues, cuts to specific departments, or what services he’d be open to cutting.
The thread doesn’t show a reply to Livingston’s email.
Lee said he did meet with budget officials to talk through his request, which he said was to go through a budgetary “exercise” with county department bosses to see what those cuts would look like from each of their offices.
“He said there are department heads that don’t want to play that game,” Lee told the Deseret News. “I said, ‘Let’s go through that exercise. If they don’t want to play that game, I still need an analysis.’”
Lee added that Livingston “did come back to me at one point and said, ‘Listen, $3 million is a piece of cake.’ I said, ‘OK, I still want to see what that looks like. What about the $6 million and $9 million?’ And I haven’t seen anything.”
Asked why vote to move budgetary oversight completely under the commission instead of first talking with Powers Gardner about their concerns, Lee said it comes down to “personality issues” and that he’s gotten the “feeling” that the clerk/auditor’s office has an “attitude” of “we don’t want to share information with you.”
“I think that it’s coming down to that one; we haven’t felt like the cooperation level is at a level which we would think would normally be there for us as commissioners,” Lee said. “It doesn’t feel like a team at all. It feels like adversaries.”
Powers Gardner said she’s “absolutely puzzled” why the commissioners feel like they haven’t been given the information they’ve wanted.
“I will tell you, the comments that were made that say the commission is not getting the information that they want or they request, I don’t believe that’s true,” Livingston said in Wednesday’s commission meeting. “And I’ll tell you why. Because this year, neither Commissioner Lee nor Commissioner Sakievich has contacted our office for budget questions.”
Powers Gardner shared a memo with the Deseret News sent last week to the commission stating the Division of Financial Services “stands ready to help you in your financial leadership role.” It described their efforts to create a multiyear forecasting model and budgetary goals in addition to the commission’s goal to reduce the tax rate.
“Now, I’m a professional,” Livingston told the commissioners, noting his over 20 years experience in government financial management and the code of ethics he’s pledged to follow. “And I feel like these actions treat me as a pawn and not as a professional.”
Livingston added: “I will always do what I believe is in the best interest of the county, provide sound professional advice, whether it’s accepted or not, that’s fine. But I will not follow — blindly follow — any political agenda or make any moves that will be contrary to these ethics. And I’m not saying that you are doing so, but that’s how I am. I’m an ethical person.”
Livingston also said he’s “offended” that the commissioners believe he’ll perform his duties any differently under them than he does currently under Gardner Powers.
“Currently we have great synergy between all functions of the clerk/auditor department, and this will destroy that synergy,” he said. He also said he’s enjoyed his job at the county “more in the past year than I have in the preceding 15 years, and this is because of the leadership in our department providing clear vision.”
Livingston said the move will “cause the entire 2022 budget cycle to be less efficient” and would delay the 2022 capital improvement program “if we have to monkey around here.”
Lee took issue with Livingston’s use of the words “monkey around.”
“If monkeying around is working with the commissioners, that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s not monkeying around. We’re asking legitimate questions that we have.”
Still, Lee and Sakievich so far seem to be standing alone in their support of the budget restructuring, facing the wrath of more powerful state leaders like Henderson.
Lee told the Deseret News he found Henderson’s comments “unfortunate” and “ironic that she was claiming to a certain degree there was no communication” and yet “she herself blows it out there on posts or tweets or whatever and didn’t call either one of us.” He said if there “would have been a phone call it could have been alleviated instead of throwing darts blindly.”
Lee said he plans to reach out to other state officials to discuss the issue.
“If there’s a way to have the conversation and alleviate some of the fires that are out there, but we can’t do it just by throwing darts. We’ve got to have the conversations.”