OGDEN — Weber County commissioners have dialed back a retirement perk that allows elected leaders to take a lump-sum cash payment in lieu of extended health benefits on leaving office.
Four officials have taken advantage of the benefit since an earlier slate of county commissioners enacted it in 2014, collecting $250,170.28 between them. Per the 3-0 action at Tuesday's county commission meeting, new restrictions in tapping the benefit will apply to those currently holding elective office.
The provision doesn't immediately go away, notably, but the ability to take a cash payment equivalent to five year's worth of health benefits, as has been allowed, will be scaled back and eliminated by the end of 2026. Moreover, elected officials who take office Jan. 1, 2019, or thereafter won't be able to tap the cash payment provision at all, though they'll be able to access continued health care benefits on retiring, with certain conditions, until the 2026 phase out.
"It'd be nice if we could cut this thing right off, but I have to agree, we have some responsibilities as a corporation, as a county, and I'm not overly happy about it," Commissioner Scott Jenkins said. He didn't elaborate, but said earlier in the meeting that commissioners had met in the morning with other elected officials to tell them of the likely action, learning that some were "planning on these benefits."
Weber County's other elected officials include the county attorney, sheriff, clerk/auditor, county recorder/surveyor and county treasurer, among others.
Sarah Swan, human resources director for the county, launched the effort to tweak the cash payment provision after learning of it last June. That's when commissioners approved a $64,494.60 payment to Kerry Gibson per the policy after he stepped down as county commissioner to take a deputy director post at the Utah Department of Natural Resources. The provision had applied to county elected leaders with at least four years of service — but not other county employees — letting them take up to five years of county-provided health coverage or the cash equivalent.
"The practice is not equitable, we acknowledge that," said Swan, noting that the policy wasn't included in the county personnel manual, prompting her surprise when learning of it. "In my opinion, elected officials should have no better benefits than employees. We should all be treated equally."
The provision generated a rebuke from some who addressed commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting, before the officials took formal action to tweak it. The critics viewed it as irresponsible use of county money.
"I do think it's appalling," said Randy Winn of North Ogden.
Aside from Gibson, the departing elected officials who have tapped the provision allowing for payments in lieu of health benefits include former county commissioners Matthew Bell, who received $65,529.60, and Jan Zogmaister, who received $53,852.25. Gibson, Bell and Zogmaister served on the county commission together and approved the provision in 2014. Dee Smith, a former county attorney, also tapped the benefit, receiving $66,293.83.
Winn questioned the timeline to phase out the provision per Tuesday's action — "Why does it take till 2026 to fix something that needed fixing five years ago, really?" — and offered a broader criticism of the pay county commissioners receive. Compensation in 2017 for the three Weber County commissioners ranged from around $169,000 to $183,000 each, according to the Utah Public Finance website, an online clearinghouse of government financial information.
"I think the pay has got out of hand," Winn said. "I think this has just been a cash cow position to hold in county government and I hope you guys have the courage to follow through and to straighten this thing out so it's responsible to the citizens."
Gibson has been advised by DNR officials not to talk about the issue and declined comment while Zogmaister and Bell didn't return calls seeking comment on the reasoning behind the 2014 measure. But Swan said she suspects they may have seen it as a mechanism to help departing elected officials as they transition back to the private sector after leaving office. Jenkins offered a similar explanation, but said the effort to transition out of an elective post when the time comes should be factored when deciding whether to seek elective office in the first place.
Meantime, the Alliance for a Better Utah, a Salt Lake City-based government watchdog group, called on Gibson to return the funds he received per the 2014 provision. "Most Weber County residents are likely unaware this loophole exists, but we have no doubt they would be strongly apposed to this policy," a statement from the group read, in part.
Among others, the three commissioners who approved Tuesday's change, Jenkins, James Ebert and Jim Harvey, could theoretically still tap into the cash-payout perk, depending on how long they remain in office and presuming they leave before it's phased out in 2026. Ebert lost earlier this year in his re-election bid to his commission post and will be leaving office at the end of the current term. The three didn't respond to queries after Tuesday's meeting, though, about whether they'd seek the benefit if given the opportunity.
Swan emphasized in addressing the matter Tuesday that tapping the cash payout benefit is voluntary, not obligatory. "I do want to make that clear. Not everyone has to take the cash payout," she said.