CACHE COUNTY – During their regular meeting on Aug. 8, the members of the Cache County Council “pumped the brakes” on an ambitious plan to reorganize the county’s finance functions to comply with state codes.
That proposed initiative would have modified the powers of the county executive; divided the powers of the county finance director between an elected auditor and the county treasurer; and eliminated the position of county finance director.
Those changes would have involved amending the Cache County Organic Act (the county’s constitution), which County Executive David Zook opposed.
“A big red flag for me about the way these proposals were drafted is the fact that they were developed in secret,” Zook argued.
“Why did the chair (of the council) e-mail me at 5:30 p.m. last night to tell me ‘that every member of the council has been briefed and agree with these changes and that all three items will be voted on at tomorrow’s council meeting’?”
Ultimately, that prediction by Council Chair David Erickson did not come to pass as support for an abrupt change of procedures gradually evaporated during discussion by council members.
The proposed changes to county government are the result of an investigation of the Cache County Attorney’s Office (CCAO) by the Utah State Auditor and subsequent follow-up by the Utah Office for Victims of Crime (UOVC), according to Micah Safsten, the council’s policy analyst.
In a letter dated July 26 to County Executive David Zook, UVOC director Gary Scheller summarized the findings of a probe of the County Attorneys Office’s use of federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grants to fund double-billing of services to Rich County during fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Due to irregularities in grant requests by the county attorneys office during those years, Cache County is at risk of losing grants (from the federal Violence Against Women Act) amounting to around $500,000 annually that provide crucial funding for local law enforcement and victim services.
The county now faces a 45-day deadline to provide a plan to state UVOC officials to correct deficiencies in its financial procedures.
Despite that time-sensitivity, Zook argued that changing the county’s Organic Act merits more than over-night deliberation and some members of the council and officials agreed.
Safsten explained that changing the county’s constitution is a momentous step, requiring a “yea” vote by two-thirds of the council’s seven members, but not a public referendum under state code.
Safsten admitted that the proposed changes would result in a “clunky system with more moving parts.”
“That’s the con of this proposal,” he said. “But it also provides for more (financial) oversight, which satisfies the concerns of various state agencies.”
Following a prolong discussion of financial responsibilities by Zook, council member Nolan Gunnell thanked the executive for the history lesson, but pointed out that the council was now facing the realities of 2023.
“I think everyone of the council takes (the threat of loss of grant funding) very seriously,” he said. “If I asked everyone who much time they’ve spent on these changes in the past week, I think they’d agree that it’s been exhaustive.
“These changes will be challenging and we’ll all have to adapt,” Gunnell added. “But, as a council member facing a scary threat by the state, I feel we need to do the right thing for the county.”
Assistant county attorney Taylor Sorensen also threw his two-cents into the argument, noting that Davis, Utah, Washington and Weber counties all successfully use the proposed system to handle their finances.
While supporting the proposed changes, council member Kent Ward suggested that delaying a vote on Resolution 2023-09 until the council’s next meeting in two weeks would be beneficial.
Council vice chair Barbara Tidwell voiced support for that delay and council members Sandi Goodlander and Kathryn Beus agreed.
Gunnell remained committed to the proposed changes to the Organic Act, but agreed to the two-week delay to sound out the opinions of county employees on the issue.
Also tabled for two weeks were Ordinance 2023-29, which would implement those proposed changes to the Organic Act, and Resolution 2023-10, which would mandate a reduction in force eliminating the position of county finance director.
Those matters will be discussed again at the council’s next regular meeting on Aug. 22.