Money woes bring drastic cuts in Tooele County

Jul 6 2013 - 4:41pm

TOOELE -- The community pool is closed even as people look for ways to cool down during a heat wave. The county fair scheduled for next month has been cancelled for the first time in six decades. Dozens of county employees have been laid off in recent months.

These are dire economic times for Tooele County, home to nearly 60,000 people.

The Salt lake Tribune reports that the financial woes can be traced back to a gamble taken by county commissioners during the heart of the recession.

In 2009, Tooele County Commissioners began borrowing millions from restricted accounts devoted to essential duties - road maintenance and waste management, for instance - to keep the county's expansive sports and entertainment complex open.

By the time the county stopped grabbing from the funds, it had a $6.5 million loan it couldn't pay back, Tooele County Treasurer Jeremy Walker said.

These types of transfers are allowed, but counties must set a repayment plan, State Auditor John Dougall said. But that didn't happen Walker told The Salt Lake Tribune.

"That's a problem," Walker said. "It would have perhaps prevented this loan from getting as big as it has."

The ill-fated decision coincided with an economic downturn that led to reduced mitigation fees from several waste facilities, from $13 million in 2005 to just $4.3 million in 2012.

Mandatory federal budget cuts also hit the county hard. Nearly 80 percent of the county is federally owned, so the cuts meant fewer payments in lieu of taxes and less federal grant money.

Another hit came in January 2012, when a U.S. Army chemical weapon depot closed, taking away a stream of federal payments from the county.

Now, the county is forced with making difficult decisions that are hindering quality of life for county residents.

Since 2012, the county has cut its staff by 28 percent from 418 to 300 employees. In March, the county laid off 23 parks and recreation and building maintenance workers.

That led to the closure of the Desert Peak Complex, an $18 million recreation and entertainment facility with one of the largest swimming pools in Utah, two museums, soccer fields, softball diamonds, playgrounds and tracks for BMX, ATVs and motocross.

Also in March, the county announced that the county fair would be cancelled due to lack of funds. The fair cost $193,000 in 2012 and included carnival rides, demolition derbies and big-name entertainment.

More recently, the county made public that it would grind up an 11-mile paved stretch of the historic Pony Express Trail and make the pieces into gravel to blanket the road. This plan will cost $32,000, about one-third of what it would have cost to do a temporary repair of the paved road, county officials said.

In May, the county delegated its food bank, temporary housing and domestic violence assistance to an outside agency, cutting 11 county jobs.

Tooele County Commission Chairman J. Bruce Clegg said they were told about the problem with the borrowed money in late 2012 when Walker, the county treasurer, brought it to their attention.

He referred questions about the decision to Tooele County Auditor Michael Jensen. Jensen told The Salt Lake Tribune by email that he's not aware of a state statute requiring a payback schedule.

"For this reason, I assume, one was not created," Jensen said. "However, it might be a good idea for the commissioners to create a schedule to help with future budgets and to have an ongoing knowledge of the balance of the loan."

The county is considering a tax increase to remedy the problem and has created a multi-year plan that includes more cutbacks in services and higher service fees. They are even considering selling the Deseret Peak Complex.

If enacted, the tax increase would bring the county an additional $2.5 million per year, county officials say. That would bolster the county's rainy day fund and begin repaying the funds the county borrowed from the restricted funds.

County residents are hoping the county fair will be revived next year and that when the next heat wave comes, the pool will be reopened.

"Our kids really look forward to going every year," resident Travis Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

 

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