OGDEN — Politicians spend lots of time and money asking for your vote to get into office. In one Utah county, taxpayers have been paying them a hefty payout when they leave office.
And a KSL investigation found that policy has cost taxpayers $248,351 over the past four years.
In 2008, Weber County created an early retirement incentive for employees. The county offered to cover health insurance premiums for five years for any employees who retired early.
But in 2014, then commissioners Kerry Gibson, Matthew Bell, and Jan Zogmaister approved a change to the policy only offered to elected officials: take the insurance benefit like other employees, or take the benefit in one lump sum payment worth tens of thousands of dollars. The commissioners also shortened the length of time an elected official needed to serve in order to qualify, from eight years to four.
Officials were eligible for the payout regardless of whether they quit midterm or got voted out.
Payments at a glance
County records obtained by the KSL Investigators show the three commissioners who voted for the policy, Gibson, Bell, and Zogmaister, have taken the lump sum option. Former Weber County Attorney Dee Smith also took the lump sum option.
- Kerry Gibson: $64,494.60
- Matthew Bell: $65,529.60
- Jan Zogmaister: $52,999.80
- Dee Smith: $65,327.40
The officials could put the money into their retirement accounts, medical accounts, or take a check.
Taxpayers the KSL Investigators spoke with at the Weber County Fair did not like the policy.
“I don’t think they should get a payout like that, I don’t believe in that,” said Keith Jacques.
“I think our elected officials all the way in government get a lot of perks that the rest of the citizens don’t get,” said Kathryn Stuart.
The Utah Taxpayers Association also saw problems with the policy.
“Wow, this is certainly a golden parachute for elected officials and I don’t think that’s something taxpayers anticipate their elected officials having,” said Billy Hesterman, the vice president of the association.
“This is not good public policy,” continued Hesterman. “The commission and if there’s any other counties that have this same type of benefit, should reevaluate it.”
Unique in Utah
The KSL Investigators randomly surveyed 10 counties across the state. Human resource directors all said they’d never heard of such a policy and said elected officials in their counties did not get anything when they left office.
KSL reached out to the elected officials who benefited from the policy.
Former commissioner Jan Zogmaister declined to be interviewed. Neither former commissioner Matthew Bell nor former county attorney Dee Smith returned messages.
Former commissioner Kerry Gibson declined an on-camera interview, but answered questions over the phone. He quit his commission post in June to take a job with the Utah Department of Natural Resources. He said he did not realize the policy he voted on in 2014 created a separate benefit for elected officials. He said the benefits should be the same for employees, and said the current policy should be changed.
He’s not the only official who seemed confused by the policy.
“Kind of naively, I thought the benefit applied evenly across the board,” said current Weber County Commissioner James Ebert.
Policy on the chopping block
Ebert took office after the policy was approved. He said the commission decided to phase out the early retirement incentive for employees in 2016. He said that phaseout will take 10 years, but will eliminate a $30 million liability on the county’s books.
But Ebert said the commission will need to take a separate vote to eliminate the elected official benefit. He said the county’s legal department is reviewing proposed legislation to do so.
“County policy should be fair and equitable to everyone in the county,” said Ebert.
Ebert himself faces a decision whether or not to take the insurance or lump sum payout. He lost his seat in the 2018 Republican primary and will leave his commission post at year’s end.