SALT LAKE CITY — Criticism over extravagant "incentive" pay to four top leaders of the Unified Fire Authority has spurred not one audit, but two.
Citing complaints alleging improper compensation and "other potential misuse of public funds," the Utah state auditor launched an investigation of Unified Fire Authority compensation, credit cards and fuel cards last week.
But Tuesday, after a special closed-door meeting, the Unified board called for its own audit, similar to yet separate from the state investigation.
"The audit will focus primarily on top management of the organization," stated the resolution calling for the audit, which the board passed unanimously.
What's more, the board also tasked the authority's Governance Committee to meet with Chief Michael Jensen in a closed session this Friday to discuss the future of his contract.
The purpose of Tuesday's resolution — passed with unanimous support from the board — is to hire an independent auditor to work on a tighter timeline with scrutiny on "everything we feel is necessary," said Unified Fire Authority Board Vice Chairman and Eagle Mountain Mayor Christopher Pengra.
"We as a board are 100 percent dedicated to addressing the issues that have come to light," Pengra said. "We feel that it's important that we do that in a timely manner, for the benefit of the organization, and we also want to have the flexibility to guide and direct the auditor to look at everything we feel is necessary internally."
Pengra declined to elaborate more on the purpose of meeting with Jensen to discuss his contract, explaining the details of that matter is "protected" under open meeting laws.
In addition to all Unified credit card and fuel statements since 2012, the state auditor is specifically investigating compensation for 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.
Those four officials have all been the subject of public scrutiny for collectively receiving more than $400,000 in bonuses over the past five years.
The latest round of incentives — $34,000 each — sparked ire among firefighters and board members because the extra money, having grown rapidly over the past five years, had gone unnoticed by several Unified board members.
Soon after, Scott suddenly resigned, citing health reasons.
Pengra said it's up to both audits to determine if there is indeed any misuse of public funds happening within Unified Fire Authority, but the board is calling for its own audit from an outside firm to hopefully determine that on a quicker basis than the state auditor.
"There is a sense of urgency," he said. "The board feels a sense of responsibility for the benefit of the organization, that if there are issues, we need to very quickly identify those and resolve them."
No dollar amount has been yet approved for the audit, Pengra said, but Tuesday's resolution directed Unified Fire Authority's finance committee to determine the figure and present it to the board for approval.
Pengra added the board has not established a timeline for the audit — since that will be discussed with the auditors once they're hired — but he's hoping it will be completed "as soon as possible."
The incentive pay issue and questions around other possible misuse of public funds has caused decay of morale among the rank-and-file firefighters, said Jeremy Robertson, president of the Salt Lake County International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1696, which represents 90 percent of Unified's firefighters.
"The employees of UFA are deeply saddened because we know the contribution that Chief Jensen and many others have made to build the Unified Fire Authority, and these audits have cast a cloud over our organization that has deeply affected morale and its firefighters," Robertson said.
"However, we are optimistic that the board, working with the administration, will fully investigate any issues that may be on the table," he continued. "In the meantime, the firefighters will remain committed to providing the day-to-day services that the citizens deserve."
Jensen did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment Wednesday.
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