Changing the form of Salt Lake County government may be good or bad on a political level, depending on your point of view, but one thing is sure: It won't come cheap.
At the request of the County Commission, County Auditor Craig Sorensen has studied the issue of cost and concluded that switching from a three-member commission form to a nine-member council and mayor form would cost taxpayers anywhere from $540,000 to $1.2 million.That money would be used to remodel offices to accommodate additional elected officials and staff, provide them with computers, furniture and other office equipment and cover indirect costs.
But that's not all. Sorensen estimates that to run the new form would annually cost from $1.3 million to $3.8 million - in other words, $380,000 to $3.1 million over the current commission office budget of about $1 million.
Commissioner Randy Horiuchi, who generally opposes switching forms, jumped on those estimates as another reason not to change.
"The potential for this form of government is to really balloon," he said. "I sort of compare it to an arms race - (council and mayor) begin to sort of arm themselves with staff people. A new government would be exceptionally expensive."
But Commission Chairman Brent Overson, who favors changing the form, said the figures - especially the higher ones - are misleading.
"Most of the counties (Sorensen) compared us with were East Coast counties with 60-plus staff members, and I can't in my wildest dreams think we'll have that many staff," he said. "If you look around Utah, we're not real staff-heavy."
In arriving at the lower figures, Sorensen relied on the plan commissioners have approved for the new government form, with minimum staffing for both council and mayor - seven for the council and five for the mayor, not including the elected officials themselves. Sorensen, however, puts more stock in the higher figures.
"(The more expensive model) is probably the best indicator of what the costs might actually be because it is based on the staffing that other counties have actually implemented," he said.
Sorensen studied nine counties in New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Florida, Tennessee and Washington that use the council/mayor or executive form and that are similar in size to Salt Lake County's 850,000-resident population. He found an average council staff size of 4.4 employees per council member, meaning 40 staffers for a nine-member council, and 16 employees in the mayor's office. The total, 56, is more than four times the minimum staffing assumptions on which the lower figures are based.
The County Commission office currently has eight staffers, not including commissioners.
Overson points to Salt Lake City, which itself changed from a commission to a council/mayor form in 1979, as a better indicator of probable staffing levels. The council has about 13.8 full-time-equivalent staffers and a budget of $1.3 million, and the mayor has 17 full-time and one part-time staffer, with the same budget - $1.3 million.
(Salt Lake budget director Steve Fawcett cautioned that the mayor's office figures contain the department of community affairs, which some don't consider part of the mayor's staff. Community affairs has 11.5 employees and a $400,000 budget.)
Even those figures, however, are significantly higher than Soren-sen's lower staffing and budget estimates, and Horiuchi pointed out that Salt Lake City is only one-fourth the size of Salt Lake County.
"Salt Lake City is a smaller jurisdiction and a smaller responsibility," he said. "If we change the form, you're going to see a proliferation of government."
Salt Lake County residents will vote Nov. 3 on whether to change their form of government.
Cost of S.L. County government
Three county commissioners
$1 million annual budget
Council/Mayor form-Low estimate
Nine council members
$1.3 million annual budget
$540,000 to change forms
Council/Mayor form-High estimate
Nine council members
$3.8 million annual budget
$1.2 million to change forms