If the ultimate outcome of House Bill 244, recently signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, is that Grand County moves back to a full-time, three-member or five-member county commission — one paid a salary for their work — what would be the financial ramifications to taxpayers?
It’s a serious question, given that the seven elected members of the Grand County Council are currently paid just $959.81 each month and are provided reimbursement of expenses for political work on behalf of the voters. That amount was established during the Jan. 3, 2017 meeting of the council when all seven members — including former member Chris Baird — voted yes on a pay increase. The members earned $735.25 before the 2017 vote.
Grand County voters approved what is called an “Optional Plan” for county government in 1992. Grand County Clerk/Auditor Diana Carroll provided a copy of that plan to The Times-Independent and it reveals the desire of proponents at the time to ensure a new, seven-member council-enlarged government, while reducing compensation.
The plan also set a $500 initial limit on monthly pay to council members. That amount would be equal to approximately $900 each month when adjusted for inflation in 2018.
“Consistent with this plan’s provisions increasing the size and reducing the compensation of the council, it is the intent of this plan to establish the council as a citizen body whose members serve on a part-time basis primarily in a legislative, policy-making role, and membership on the council is not intended to be a full-time position involving extensive day-to-day administrative oversight of county operations and functions,” the document states.
Uintah County, once one of the wealthiest counties in Utah, though one that is now facing the deepest
recession prospects in decades with the decline of the oil and gas industry, pays its commissioners between $105,000 per year at the low end, with a top level pay of just more than $125,000 in 2017, according to transparent.utah.gov.
Closer to home, in Kane County, all three commissioners — chairman Dirk Clawson, or commissioners James Matson and Lamont Smith — were paid the same base salary of $41,118.74 in 2017. In addition to that salary, each Kane County commissioner is paid roughly $15,000 each year in benefits. Wayne County pays its three commissioners between $22,000 and $43,000 each year, with clerk Ryan Torgerson earning more than $85,000 annually. Sanpete County shows parity in pay for its three commissioners with each earning about $42,000, though Sanpete County Clerk Sandy Neill, the commission administrator, is paid roughly $84,000 a year.
Morgan County, which has a similar seven-member council form of government, pays its legislators between $27,000 and $32,000 a year. Clerk/Auditor Stacy Clark earns just more than $84,500 annually.
Baird, who is now running unopposed for Grand County Clerk/Auditor and will likely take over that job in January 2019, offered his thoughts on what a new form of government might cost.
“The typical cost for a full-time commissioner ranges from $40,000 to $120,000 ... and you can roughly estimate full-time benefit costs by adding 40 percent,” Baird said. “Costs for a part-time council could be anywhere from where the Grand County Council is now, and where the Summit County Council is. Last time I checked the Summit County Council was between $45,000 for regular council members, and around $60,000 for the chair. It is impossible to say what financial position the county will be in when it comes time to make the transition.
“One of the positions is already in place; we have a chief administrator in Ruth Dillon, so even if the name of the position changes it would be roughly the same salary,” Baird continued. “If we go to three or five members it is going to mean more money ... if we go to a council-manager form, or having an elected administrator, that person would be doing most of the administrative work of the commission.”
Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells told The Times-Independent the staffing levels at the county would change under a commission system — and that a measure of savings would follow.
“If staff is kept the way it is now, and you just lay those salaries on top, of course it will increase operational costs,” Wells said. “If I recall correctly, last year we voted to hire two new professional staff with benefits. The county has been adding employees every year at positions worth around six figures when you add benefits. When you transition from the council form to commission, however, you evaluate staff levels in that transition in order to enable efficiency with those full-time commissioners.”
Wells added that the Utah Association of Counties ranks this region fifth overall in the state for staffing levels in county government.
“UAC has a metric to determine staffing at the government level for every 10,000 citizens,” Wells said. “Per that metric we are ranked No. 5, meaning we are the fifth highest in the state overall ... for a fifth-class county that is significant. We’re talking about being compared to Salt Lake County or other large governments in the state. Clearly we have some flexibility here to reduce our spending on staffing in government.”
By comparison, Salt Lake County, the most populous of the 29 counties in the state, is ranked No. 19 in terms of county employees per 10,000 residents, according the UAC’s website.
Local attorney Christina Sloan, a specialist in real property, land use and contract law who is running for Grand County Attorney in the June primary election, said any change in the pay of elected officials should be studied — and staffing issues will depend on which council or commissioner form the voters approve during the mandated change in government process under H.B. 224.
“In my opinion, the county should conduct a salary survey of elected officials in other counties to determine the appropriate salary,” Sloan said. “I would recommend we start with a review of the public salary information on Utah’s Right to Know website and Transparent Utah and request updated salary information from various counties by phone or email. The change in form of government process will not inherently alter the council’s current authority regarding budgeting or human resources. However, if the county executive or manager model [is approved], then the council may delegate additional power to the county executive or manager to review internal staffing needs and efficiency across departments. With that said, I don’t see the council interfering with the staffing decisions made by department heads unless there is good cause.”