OGDEN — Weber County commissioners have removed an auto allowance from the salaries of elected officials, including their own, a move that will dial back their benefits and save the county some $21,000 in 2019.
The savings is small in the scope of the overall county budget, which totals some $168 million for 2019. But County Commissioner Scott Jenkins, who pushed for the change and campaigned for his post in elections last year on a message of keeping spending in check, sees it as a beginning. “A cut’s a cut. You got to start somewhere,” he said.
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Moreover, he sees the change as a step forward in taking a more business-like approach to governing.
Jenkins, appointed to the body last June and elected to the post in November, learned of the benefit on taking office. That it was included as part of his salary didn’t sit well with him and ran against what he says are standard business practices — separating benefits out of pay. “I know a business doesn’t run it that way, so we are changing it back,” said Jenkins.
The allowance, dating to 2004 and totaling $600 a month or $7,200 a year, is meant to offset the cost for the officials who use their personal vehicles for county business. Per the change, approved by commissioners last year and effective with the 2019 budget, it doesn’t go away. But separating it out from the salaries of elected officials and the two department heads who got it means Weber County won’t have to pay withholding tax to the feds on the extra sum. Moreover, the county contribution to the officials’ retirement funds will go down based on the lower salary figure.
The net savings to the county, according to Ricky Hatch, the county’s clerk-auditor, will be $21,456 for 2019. “In addition,” Hatch noted, “the commissioners did not take a pay for performance raise offered to county employees.”
Commissioners came under fire from some last August for another benefit, a retirement perk that allows elected officials leaving office, including commissioners, to take a lump-sum cash payment in lieu of extended health benefits. On learning of the benefit, which has allowed four elected officials so far to collect between about $53,000 and $66,000 each after leaving office, commissioners approved change gradually phasing it out by the end of 2026.
Commissioner Gage Froerer, who won election to his spot last November and took office in January, had lambasted ”padded salaries” in county government in campaigning for office last year. He lauded the change in the travel allowance, approved by the prior slate of commissioners — Jenkins, Jim Harvey and James Ebert, who Froerer replaced — and said he has commissioned a study of county employees’ salaries.
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The aim is to make sure the county is “fair but competitive,” Froerer said in a statement, adding that any proposed change coming from the study could be implemented in the 2020 budget. “In the meantime,” he continued, “we will continue to maximize every tax dollar and seek out ways to cut more unnecessary spending.”
Jenkins doesn’t know why the travel allowance was included in the salaries of the officials who got it: the three commissioners, five other elected officials and two department heads. Being a business operator — he ran Great Western Supply, a plumbing business, though he’s stepped back from the operation since taking the commission post — it countered how he handled operations.
Likewise, Sarah Swan, human resources director for Weber County, couldn’t explain the move.
Commissioners created the allowance in 2004, Swan said. It had been paid as a benefit, separate from salaries, but the 2016 slate of commissioners, Ebert, Matt Bell and Kerry Gibson, via memo, made the allowance part of the affected officials’ salaries. Whether they knew it or not, the $7,200 annual allowance, being part of their wages, had the effect of boosting their retirement benefits, which are a function of salary level.
Neither Ebert nor Bell immediately responded to queries seeking comment.
Gibson, though, said his aim when the allowance was moved into salaries was increasing transparency. The sum, $7,200, is part of elected officials’ compensation package, and including it as part of the salary figure provided a truer figure to the public of what they earned, without having to add figures from different sources. “Let’s call it what it is,” Gibson said.
His annual pay as county commissioner had been around $127,200, including the auto allowance, Jenkins said. Per the change, his salary falls to about $120,000 while the $7,200 is paid to him separately.
HOW OTHER COUNTIES DO IT
The travel allowance offered in Weber County is comparable to the sum the three Davis County commissioners got in 2017, between about $7,500 and $7,900 each, according to the Utah Division of Finance data. In Davis County, it’s paid separate from the commissioners’ wages, like it’s now done in Weber County.
But Utah’s other largest counties reimburse for auto expenses in a distinctly different way — based on actual mileage traveled handling official business.
In Utah County, for instance, the three county commissioners in 2018 were reimbursed at a rate of 54.5 cents per mile traveled in their personal vehicles, with a cap of $4,000 each. Brian Voeks, administrative assistant to Commissioner Bill Lee, said Lee received $1,562.96 in reimbursement last year, Commissioner Greg Graves received $3,249.29 and Commissioner Nathan Ivie received none, since he didn’t seek reimbursement.
In Salt Lake County, county employees, elected or otherwise, are getting reimbursed this year at a rate of 59 cents per mile while in Washington County, the figure is 53.5 cents. Both counties provide lower per-mile reimbursement rates if county vehicles are available but employees choose to use their own vehicles.
In Cache County, elected officials are reimbursed at a rate of 58 cents per mile traveled. Between them, the county executive and seven county council members — eight officials in all — can tap into an annual travel budget that typically hovers around $15,000, whether for overnight hotel stays on county business or auto and airplane travel, according to Cameron Jensen, the county’s finance director.
If the reimbursement rate in Weber County were 59 cents per mile, commissioners and elected officials would have to travel about 12,200 miles in their cars to get $7,200. Jenkins said commissioners do a lot of travel, around the county and to Salt Lake City and other places for varied public meetings. Shifting to reimbursement based on actual travel, though, may be worth looking at.
“Maybe it’s something we’ll have to consider,” he said.