The Grand County 2018 total budget is $16.7 million larger than previously reported, based on information released earlier this month from County Clerk/Auditor Diana Carroll. While very little of that amount would have been subject to discretionary decisions by the county council, there is some question as to how well council members were apprised of certain budget numbers prior to approving it on Dec. 27.
“They are things that definitely should have been run by the council,” Council Member Jaylyn Hawks said when asked about five different special-revenue funds that were absent from budget reports produced by the clerk/auditor’s office.
The omission of those five funds just added to a litany of frustrations — in Hawks’ words, “… things here, there and everywhere.” — that led the council to begin taking steps this week that would take budget-preparing authority away from the clerk/auditor’s office, and give it instead to a proposed budget advisory board.
On Tuesday, the council gave notice (found on Page A5) of a public hearing on Jan. 30 for the purpose of considering an ordinance that would create “the Grand County Budget Advisory Board. “
Council Member Curtis Wells is undertaking the draft of that ordinance, according to Grand County Administrator Ruth Dillon.
Wells has been rather outspoken about his pique regarding the recent budget process. He had called the process “challenging,” in part because council members are ultimately responsible for the budget, but found themselves reliant, in their view, on a process full of inconsistencies, un-followed instructions and untimely information during last fall’s budgeting process.
He said at the time, “You have a council who is interested in and committed to a budget process as outlined by state code where the budget is prepared collaboratively.”
Under state law, the county council can appoint its own budget officer. While a county auditor often holds that function, it is not required to be so. The budget officer does not even have to be an elected official.
The council’s proposal is to create a board to aid in crafting each year’s budget. A more engaged process would presumably help prevent hiccups or insufficient or missing information.
Funds omitted from budget reports
Last week, Clerk/Auditor Diana Carroll provided numbers for four different funds that weren’t included in a final budget document The Times-Independent used in reporting the budget two weeks ago, citing a total budget of $32.3 million. Carroll acknowledged a fifth fund — a drug court grant fund of $59,256, — but said it no longer existed and that its balance had been rolled over into the general fund in 2017.
The other funds, like the drug court fund, are all special-revenue funds, which means the funds come from very defined sources and go toward very specific purposes, with little room for discussions of how to divvy the money. They are a domestic violence grant fund of $81,815, an impact fees fund of $269,550, a Canyonlands Airport capital projects fund of $16.2 million and a library capital projects fund of $142,251.
With those four funds, the county’s total 2018 budget comes to $49 million.
Carroll says the funds weren’t listed on the reports because, in effect, they didn’t need to be. As special-revenue funds, nothing about them would have really changed. “They are what they are,” she said Tuesday.
The Times-Independent discovered the omitted funds by comparing 2017 budget documents from the Utah State Auditor’s Office, where the funds were listed, to 2018 budget documents provided by Carroll’s office, where they were not.
Did council approve funds unwittingly?
When initially asked about them on Jan. 4, Carroll gave indication that it had been an inadvertent slip up, and readily provided reports on all but the drug court fund. Further analysis, however, showed those same funds — and only those funds — were consistently left out of every budget report or worksheet available to the newspaper throughout the three-month budget process.
The question became: If the public never saw those funds in budget documents, did council members miss seeing them as well, which would mean that one-third of the entire budget had been approved unwittingly.
“No, I do not recall that,” Hawks said regarding the impact fee fund specifically. She gave similar answers for other funds. Dillon, who sat in on all but one of the budget discussions said she didn’t remember talking about the impact fee fund, the domestic violence grant or the Canyonlands Airport funds.
Council Chair Mary McGann said she did remember talking about some of them, but seemed vague on details, saying she recalled looking at so many different grants and funds, “all of them.”
“I’d have to go back and listen to the recordings,” she said when asked about whether the council ever discussed the drug court fund. McGann gave a definitive “no,” however, when asked directly if the council had made the decision to transfer the drug court fund to the general fund.
Tracking the drug court fund balance
Hawks gave a similar answer. “I don’t recall talking about that,” she said. “And wow.” That’s because it was impossible to track, with budget reports alone, what had happened to the drug court fund’s roughly $59,000.
The money was originally budgeted under “Miscellaneous Supplies” in the drug court fund at the beginning of 2017. Carroll had said it was later transferred to the general fund. However, the transfer was not identifiable in a comparison of beginning and ending 2017 budgets. Elsewhere throughout the budget, such transfers are more clearly listed and traceable.
It took Carroll some explaining to clear it up.
Tuesday, Carroll said the money was transferred into the general fund under the revenue line-item “expense reimbursement,” even though there is also a “transfer from other funds” line-item. The “expense reimbursement” line item did see a change from $15,000 in the original 2017 budget to $160,000 in the amended budget at the end of the year.
Carroll said the transfer would not have needed council approval. “It’s just bookkeeping.”
Special-revenue funds: ‘Not much to discuss’
When asked if the other four special-revenue funds received attention during budget discussions, Carroll indicated the affirmative, but said, “We didn’t spend time discussing them because there wasn’t much to discuss.”
Asked pointedly if the council ever saw those particular funds, Carroll was equivocal. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on them,” she said.
Hawks and Dillon both reaffirmed Carroll’s point that special-revenue funds don’t require, or even allow, much adjusting, so there would be minimal point to having the council spending time on them.
For instance, the Canyonlands Airport capitol fund is a de facto pass-through fund for federal and state grants, and other such monies, that are intended solely for the construction project currently underway. Grants come in, they go right back out to pay for a specific project. Unless the county contributes its own money, the Council members have little say in the matter (they would have already said everything at an earlier time when planning or approving the project, or accepting grants).
For funds like that, Hawks said, “It is what it is. But I believe it should have been there and at least have been discussed,” and she called the particular difficulty in tracking the drug court fund balance “troubling.”
McGann explained the budget-office restructuring proposal more in terms of manageable workload, rather than as something prompted by frustration.
“There’s been a lot on her plate, that’s been obvious,” McGann said Wednesday. “I do think she’s been overwhelmed. Elections, auditor, clerk, secretary: All of those are substantial jobs, and I think she should be recognized that she’s juggled all of those. It’s become too big for one person to handle.”
Those duties by law remain with the clerk/auditor position.
“The budget officer does not have to remain with her, so it makes sense to remove something from her plate, so that her responsibilities are manageable,” McGann said.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Carroll said she was unaware of the proposed change. Further response from her was not available by deadline. The Times-Independent will carry her response next week, should she provide one.