The $180,000 makes up less than a fraction of a percent — about 0.011% — of Salt Lake County’s over $1.6 billion budget, but the figure is at the heart of a tense, emotional debate among Democrats and Republicans at the helm of Utah’s most populated county.
The Republican-controlled Salt Lake County Council on Nov. 23 voted to slash $180,000 from Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s office budget. The move came after newly elected GOP Councilman David Alvord proposed the cut, questioning whether the mayor needs as many senior advisers as she does.
That’s despite an emotional plea from Wilson and her executive office administrator that employees in the mayor’s office are already stretched thin, often working overtime without pay amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two positions cut — one for $140,000 and one for $40,000 — were vacant due to a hiring freeze amid the pandemic. One was only vacant for a matter of weeks.
The budget “haircut,” Wilson said, will mean her staff’s ability to respond to constituents and manage communication on social media will be debilitated. She said it comes at a terrible time, when communication with constituents is more important than ever amid a time of extreme distrust of government.
“For there to be an arbitrary, political cut to our budget does have consequences,” Wilson told the Deseret News in an interview this week, still bristling from the County Council’s vote.
The county’s budget isn’t yet final. A public hearing is scheduled Tuesday. The County Council could vote to give its final stamp of approval that day, or at a separate meeting on Dec. 14.
Despite her pushback, Wilson doesn’t expect the GOP-majority County Council to change its mind. Alvord doesn’t expect anything to change either, defending the move as a “no-brainer” because he didn’t believe the mayor provided enough information to justify the positions.
“I think they can do it, I really do,” Alvord told the Deseret News. “But if they have a need for a person and they want to bring it forward ... we’ll definitely consider it. We just don’t like rubber-stamping, ‘Here’s your money. Tell us later what you’re going to use it for.’ That didn’t feel right.”
To Wilson, the budget cut was an “unfair and political” maneuver — a “targeted attack” —that unfairly affects her administrative staff’s morale and adds to their already overwhelming workload.
“I can’t ask my staff to work extra hours beyond what they’re working, and I’m not going to, especially given the heavy lift of the past two years,” Wilson said.
That workload, the mayor said, is already about to get even bigger because about $200 million in federal COVID-19 funding is heading Salt Lake County’s way that will need to be distributed, a task that will largely fall on her office’s shoulders.
“We have a budget year with an unprecedented infusion of federal dollars that are expected to be put to good community purpose with COVID mitigation and recovery, and all of that means a lot of work for our divisions departments at the county, including my office,” Wilson said.
In a time when the county is about to see an “infusion of millions and millions of federal dollars, that ($180,000) is meaningless,” Wilson said.
“So it is political. ... I have a pretty thick skin, as do my staff, but it’s gotten to the point that it’s affecting morale. It’s so overt, and it’s a disregard for the separation of powers,” she said, arguing the County Council has no business micromanaging the dollars that are budgeted for her office.
Along their 2020 campaign trail, Wilson said Alvord and two of the County Council’s newest Republican additions, Laurie Stringham and Dea Theodore, latched on to accusations from her mayoral political opponent, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, that Salt Lake County’s budget, in particular the budget for the mayor’s office, was bloated.
Wilson called those accusations “misleading and inaccurate,” defending the county’s budget as fiscally prudent and noting her office’s budget has not increased since she succeeded former Mayor Ben McAdams in 2019.
The mayor said the council’s move to cut her budget is the latest example of an increasingly political council that’s not working with her in a bipartisan way. She pointed to the council’s Aug. 12 rejection of her school mask order as another example.
Wilson also pointed to a recent Facebook post about the budget cut in which Alvord wrote, “No, this wasn’t political!”
And yet “the very next line” in his post, Wilson said, reading it aloud, “is, ‘My only motive was to fulfill campaign promises to be fiscally responsible and to control the growth of government.’”
“In reality, he ran on cutting the mayor’s budget,” Wilson said. “So this is what this is about.”
Alvord, in an interview with the Deseret News, stood by his proposed cut, defending it as not political but just part of his “fiduciary duty” as a council member. He acknowledged that the $180,000 makes up a relatively minuscule portion of the county’s budget, but cast blame on the mayor, saying she didn’t provide the information he wanted.
“I know that it’s kind of a sacred cow thing, you know. It’s like, these are her people,” Alvord said. “Yeah, but I wish she would have just handled it a little differently and been a little more transparent.”
That’s even though Wilson spent over an hour and a half with Alvord in a one-on-one meeting to discuss the budget. In that meeting, Wilson said Alvord didn’t ask about five of her employees he specifically named in an email to the mayor requesting they “provide me a report on how many hours a week they work, the projects they’ve completed in the past year,” asking for specifics.
“Please have them write a page or two about the hours a week they work, and duties, and a hypothetical ‘what would happen to SL county if we lost you,’” Alvord wrote in the Nov. 9 email to Wilson.
Alvord explicitly named Eric Hutchings, a former state lawmaker whom Wilson hired in February as her new outreach and strategy senior adviser; Justin Stewart, the mayor’s policy adviser; Lisa Hartman, the mayor’s associate deputy mayor; Chloe Morroni, the mayor’s communications director; and Abby Laver, the mayor’s executive assistant.
Wilson refused, telling Alvord in the Nov. 23 council meeting she’s “not going to ask” those members of her team “to go through that,” though she noted some of her staff have told her they’ve been working 60-hour weeks. Instead, Wilson directed the executive office administrator to send Alvord those employees’ job descriptions.
“They felt very targeted,” Wilson told Alvord, “to pick five out of the thousands and thousands of employees that I administer in my portfolio. And I was not willing — nor will I — answer beyond a reasonable level the actions of the day-to-day activities of those five.”
Alvord, asked why he didn’t ask the mayor about those individuals in his meeting with her, said, “because the meeting began with her saying that she has a statutory right to a staff, and that my questions were inappropriate.”
“It didn’t begin on the note of, ‘Hey, I’m willing to open up my books to you.’ It was, ‘You shouldn’t be asking these questions,’” Alvord said. “I left the meeting kind of scratching my head. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I could have said, ‘Well, gosh, if you’re not going to tell me about the five, then I’m not going to fund any of those people. But I felt like that would have been harsh.”
Because she didn’t provide that information, Alvord said Wilson herself “blew up” the issue. “So if it demoralized her office, I kind of put that back on the mayor and say, ‘You could have answered kind of an internal question ... but you refused to do so, and then you made a large public display of emotion.’ If they’re demoralized, you know, it’s probably her, the way she’s handled it, that’s done that more than me asking a question.”
Emotional appeals devolve into fireworks
Michelle Hicks, Wilson’s executive office administrator, was audibly nervous when she stood before the council on Nov. 23, expressing frustration and feeling “slighted.”
“Politics aside, I don’t care. Because I live in Davis County, I’ve got my own problems over there,” Hicks said. “I work about 60 hours a week, normally. During the pandemic, I was working upwards of 90 hours a week. I’m an appointed employee. I do not get overtime. I do not get paid for that. And for you to cut my knees again with two other positions that I’m going to have to pull up the slack for, that really frustrates me.”
Hicks said the way Alvord posed his question “seemed condescending to those five people.” She defended the employees in the mayor’s office, saying they “work just as hard as I do,” and said several of them could likely “go work at any other position at a much higher rate of pay, and they haven’t because they have a duty to their community.”
Yearly salaries for those five staff members cost within a range of about $50,000 to nearly $134,000, not including benefits, according to 2021 Salt Lake County budget figures.
It’s worth noting that each of the nine Salt Lake County Council members have senior policy advisers. Those policy advisers had salaries of nearly $92,000, not including benefits, in 2021.
While Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson works full time with a salary of about $176,000 in 2021, not including benefits, County Council members receive part time pay, at nearly $43,000 this year, plus benefits.
Alvord, asked about Hicks’ comments, said her remarks didn’t resonate with him because “she wasn’t one of the named, so I kind of felt like she injected herself into the discussion.”
“I really think highly of so many of the mayor’s staff,” Alvord added. “This is just me doing a fiduciary duty. ... You know, we did approve $3.5 million out of (the mayor’s) $3.7 million request. So we really didn’t cut her off too harshly.”
Wilson, who’s voice strained with emotion after the council’s vote, said she was “quite shaken” by the “lack of trust from one body to another.”
“I fear, really, what’s coming,” Wilson said. “It’s a sad day for me.”
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry, a Republican who has served on the council for over a decade including several years alongside Wilson when she was a councilwoman, voted in favor of the budget cut but told the mayor it wasn’t meant to “impugn your integrity or your honor or your honesty. That’s not what this is about for me.”
“I believe that your vote just did, Mr. Chair,” Wilson interjected. “But I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
The meeting then devolved into a bit of fireworks as DeBry and Wilson clashed, both talking over each other.
“No, no, no, no, no,” DeBry said, raising his voice over Wilson’s. “I’ll stop it right there. I’m not going to go there with you, Jenny. This is a council meeting, not the mayor’s meeting.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to include more recent salary figures.