SALT LAKE CITY — Controversy over the exponential growth of "incentive" pay to four top leaders of the Unified Fire Authority — totaling more than $400,000 over the past five years — has spurred state officials to investigate Utah's largest fire agency.
State Auditor John Dougall's office has launched an investigation of "a complaint alleging improper compensation to certain employees," according to a letter sent Wednesday to the UFA board.
But the allegations don't stop there.
In addition to W-2 income tax forms, investigators have requested credit card and fuel card statements from January 2012 to July 2016 in response to claims of "other potential misuse of public funds," the letter from the auditor's office states.
The positions of Fire Chief Michael Jensen, who also serves as a Salt Lake County Councilman, former Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott, legal counsel Karl Hendrickson and former Chief Financial Officer Shirley Perkins were all specifically listed in the letter.
Scott resigned suddenly last month, citing health reasons.
Those four officials each received $34,000 in bonuses last year, sparking ire among firefighters and board members because the extra money — having grown rapidly over the past five years — had gone unnoticed by several UFA board members Salt Lake City Weekly reported last month.
Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, a UFA board member, called the audit "appropriate" and "needed" Thursday.
"I think people are anxious for this to get resolved," Cullimore said. "While this may give (UFA) a black eye, it's really not the organization that is at fault. This is just very focused on some unfortunate improprieties at the top."
Jensen said he, too, "welcomes" the audit.
“We will cooperate with the auditor. We’ll go through everything they request,” the chief said. “It’s probably good to have a look through the entire department, so we will help in any way that they ask us."
Cullimore said he and Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle, another member of the UFA board, were "disturbed" when they discovered the "egregious" incentive pay growth in August 2015.
"If they were really entitled to these bonuses, they should have put them right out before the board," Cullimore said. "Instead, all we get is justifications and excuses. That's what made Mayor Dahle and I very unhappy."
Jensen said the pay is not a bonus but an incentive for work by top administrators beyond their day-to-day duties at UFA, including work relating to the Unified Fire Service Area, a taxing district that's separate from the fire authority.
Draper, Holladay, Alta and Cottonwood Heights are all members of UFA. However, Riverton, Taylorsville, Herriman, Eagle Mountain, and unincorporated Salt Lake County make up the UFSA and pay for its services through property tax levies, which funded the bonuses.
Jensen said the pay would grow depending on work needed in the UFSA cities and the unincorporated areas due to needs to arrange funding for building new fire stations within the district.
But Cullimore said after he and Dahle discovered the incentives, outside legal counsel determined that the bonus pay had violated the employment contracts, which prohibit payment above official salaries.
While Dahle and Cullimore proposed taking disciplinary action, the rest of the board voted it down, arguing the incentives were approved by some board members, even though the extra pay was not clearly listed as bonus "line items," Dahle said.
"If the board would have been aware of it, they would have stopped the incentives," Dahle said.
Jensen acknowledged that some board members weren't aware of the incentive structure, but he noted that it has been in place since 2007.
Earlier this year, the UFA board froze the incentives, Jensen said. The incentives could continue under a new document requiring full board approval and clearly defining UFA and UFSA functions, but Jensen said he "won't take any money (from UFSA) going forward."
"I believe we've dealt with the issue," he said. "I want the organization to heal. What upsets me as chief is everyday we go out and save lives, fight fires and make a difference in everybody's lives, and the focus, unfortunately, has been taken off of that and moved to this."
In 2015, Jensen earned about $160,000 in salary and $100,000 in benefits, including the $34,000 bonus. For serving on the County Council, he received $51,300, bringing the total to about $311,000.
Dahle said requests for fuel and credit card expenses indicate possible problems beyond the "questionable" bonuses.
"That's a whole different animal," he said. "If there's obviously enough there to cause an outside audit to be requested, that's a concern to me. Those are serious allegations."
Depending on the results of the audit, it will be up to the board to decide how to proceed, Dahle said, and "termination" may be on the table if any findings reveal violations of public trust.
"When you're dealing with government funds, transparency is paramount," Cullimore said. " We need to investigate these kinds of things. We can't just dismiss them."
Dahle said the incentive pay issue has caused "a lot of dissention" in the rank-and-file firefighters of UFA. He's hoping the audit help the board "begin to make changes that will heal hard feelings within the organization."
Jeremy Robertson, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1696 union, which represents most UFA's firefighters, said he welcomes the audit for the sake of UFA and its firefighters.
"These issues have eroded the morale of the rank-and-file, but we remain committed to doing the job we were hired to do," Robertson said, "and we have confidence that these issues will be brought to full resolution. We're confident that once the board receives the results of the audit, they will take appropriate action."
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