Elected officials discuss budget, staffing challenges

From a shortage of employees to budget concerns, from a proposed law to do away with electing county officers to a potential power struggle at the Utah Association of Counties, myriad issues were raised during an informal luncheon the Grand County Council hosted for other elected county officials Tuesday, July 9.

Grand County Sheriff Steve White, Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird, Treasurer Chris Kaufmann, Assessor Debbie Swassey and Surveyor Lucas Blake joined Council Chair Evan Clapper, Vice Chair Terry Morse and members Greg Halliday, Mary McGann and Curtis Wells during the roughly one-hour meeting.

Here’s a rundown of the issues raised:

Appointment of County Officials

Treasurer Kaufmann said he was headed to a Utah Treasurer’s conference in Layton later on Tuesday, where he expected a hot topic to be legislation proposed by state Rep. Christine Watkins, whose District 69 includes Grand County. Watkins, a Republican who lives in Price, seeks to do away with electing county officials, such as treasurers, clerks, auditors and even sheriffs, among other offices.

The logic behind Watkins’ proposed legislation, said Kaufmann, was due to Watkins’ constituents “who were upset about certain elected officials … who don’t have the knowledge or experience needed to do the job effectively.”

Kaufmann said the treasurer’s association initially had no response to Watkins’ proposed legislation – which died in committee during the 2019 legislative session before she brought it back for 2020 – but after further review it now has three or four primary reasons to support the election of treasurers.

Elected officials who act as custodians of a county’s financial resources are free to act independently from the county governments that spend those resources. According to Kaufmann, both auditors and treasurers must be elected per the Utah Constitution. More elected officials means more checks and balances, he said.

There are two ways the rules could lead to the appointment of officers: One is for a county commission or council to initiate the process, and the other is for citizens to do so.

Wells said the issue is exclusive to Watkins’ home base in Carbon County, where Wells said the county commission had “frustrations” with the clerk-auditor.

Sheriff White said his office – and the Utah Sheriffs’ Association – would always come out against the proposed change. “It all goes back to checks and balances,” he said.

Member Mary McGann noted one benefit of the appointment process would be that people would be vetted for qualifications beforehand. White countered he had to be a state-certified law enforcement officer as well as certified in corrections before he could run for sheriff.

As a drawback, Wells noted the politics of any given county “would really influence” activity. He noted the City of Moab has very few elected officials outside of the council.

Employment Woes

White said he’s low on employees across the board – later telling The Times-Independent he’s short on patrol deputies, corrections and support staff. He advised council members that Duchesne County is working to provide housing to county employees.

Clapper said it doesn’t look like a similar plan in Grand County is gaining “traction,” but he did express hopes that the county’s affordable housing overlay might solve the problem, noting projects are already on the board.

Baird said he’s short two employees, one temporarily. He also said it’s very difficult to get people with the required skills to come to Moab, because they can’t afford to move here, and that means he must train locals.

Worrisome Budget

Baird said the upcoming budget season will be a difficult one with “expenses going up. It will be challenging and difficult in terms of fulfilling our needs.” Baird also said he had to make “major adjustments” after transient room tax figures came in lower than what was predicted, which he said left the budget “still healthy but not enough to fill our needs.”

The clerk-auditor said growth in TRT revenue is starting to decline.

UAC Drama

Grand County might not remain a member of the Utah Association of Counties – which serves in part as a lobbyist for member counties – for long. According to Wells, Utah County has signaled its intent to pull out of the UAC, as has Salt Lake County. The state’s other two urban counties, Weber and Davis, might also leave.

Wells said the issue is the fee structure for members. The larger counties pay more for representation and as a result they want weighted voting to reflect that higher cost. While the more heavily populated urban counties pay more to belong to UAC, they can also afford to hire outside lobbyists to represent them at the Utah Legislature, a luxury rural counties simply don’t have.

“A lot of county folks are having that conversation,” said Wells, who acknowledged no consensus has been reached. “It brings up the question of, what happens now.” He said the issue was one Grand County will have to evaluate relatively soon.

White said the Utah Sheriffs’ Association has somewhat distanced itself from UAC, saying sheriffs didn’t feel it was representing them fairly, but he also said the issue is a double-edged sword because counties have to work together. The analogy he used was that one sheriff appearing before lawmakers doesn’t have any influence, but 29 do.

But if the state’s four richest counties have undue control over UAC, the time would come that Grand and other rural counties could lose effective representation, according to Wells.