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SALT LAKE CITY — After years of criticism from the public and legislators about Utah Transit Authority’s spending, its board of trustees has decided to cut executive bonuses by 80 percent and some executive salaries by 20 percent.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor General released results last year of a yearlong audit that spotlighted within UTA questionable development deals, extravagant executive pay and bonuses and concerns over massive debt.
But UTA officials — with former LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton appointed as the board’s chairman last year — have taken gradual efforts to demonstrate responsible spending to regain public trust.
That trust may be needed more than ever now that the public will soon be voting whether or not to approve a local sales tax increases that would help fund UTA projects, said Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, who is the sponsor of the transportation bill that the Legislature passed last week.
“The board has determined it’s critical to control compensation so that the public has confidence that these revenues that (UTA) receives will be used wisely,” said UTA general counsel Bruce Jones.
He said the 80 percent cut takes place in overall executive bonuses starting in the 2014 fiscal year onward, and newly hired executives’ salaries were decreased 20 percent from their predecessors’ prior overall compensation.
UTA has also implemented a cap for employee bonuses across the board.
The board has determined it's critical to control compensation so that the public has confidence that these revenues that (UTA) receives will be used wisely.
–Bruce Jones, UTA general counsel
“For example, if somebody had received a $20,000 or $25,000 bonus in prior years, the maximum bonus now is $7,500,” Jones said. “So nobody gets more than that.”
The board has also implemented new policies restricting employee travel, Jones said.
UTA’s actions to address its spending history partially helped the Legislature approve HB362 that now awaits Gov. Gary Herbert’s consideration, Anderson said. The bill, if approved, will impose a 12 percent gas tax hike starting July 1, which will increase the 24.5 cents-per-gallon tax by 5 cents.
It would also allow local governments to ask voters to approve a 0.25-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects. The local option tax would be split among the UTA and other mass transit entities as well as local governments for public transportation and road maintenance.
Anderson said while the UTA board’s decision to better control its spending helped lawmakers have more confidence in HB362, he thinks UTA has more work to do to improve its public image.
“The local option is a voter-approved thing,” Anderson said. “They’ve got to make their case to the people if there’s going to be any sort of an increase.”
He said he expects UTA to feel even more pressure from local governments for that local option to be more “palatable” to the voters.
“I think what they’ve done is probably a decent first step, but there’s more they have to do to fix their P.R. problem,” Anderson said.
If voters approve the local option tax, Jones said the new money will be “principally used to increase bus service, and it will not be used to enhance executive compensation and bonuses.”
While “there’s no question” that the initial shift away from past bonuses has been “painful” for some employees, Jones said, the decision adds credibility to UTA’s board and invests in the company’s “interest in performing service to the public.”
As an executive who has experienced the cuts, Jones said he’s “not bitter” about the decreases.
“I thoroughly believe in this cause, and we’re pleased to do this if it can make a difference,” he said. “I am very happy to be where I am, and I think most people at UTA would say the same thing.”
Anderson said he hopes UTA will continue taking action to increase public trust, because the bonus and salary cuts are “not going to be enough” in order to gain enough approval for the state’s transportation needs. UTA officials, he said, must continue assuring Utahns of their credibility and prove themselves with higher quality of service.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done by cities, counties and especially transit to get the voters to be willing to approve the local option and show that they’re being responsible with the funds that they currently have,” Anderson said.
But while it’s important for Utahns to “hold officials accountable” for unreasonable spending, he said they should also take the time to understand Utah’s dire transportation needs.
“It’s still up to the voters, the taxpayers, to be a watchdog on what’s happening,” Anderson said. “But the needs are great — there’s not question about it. This is important. I really hope folks pay attention.”
Katie McKellar is a Dixie State University graduate with a bachelor of science in mass communication. Before interning at Deseret News, she reported and edited news content for Dixie Sun News, first as Photo Editor, then as Features Editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org