Should Grand County impose a 0.25 percent sales and use tax to help fund local transportation projects?
The Grand County Council is giving local voters the opportunity to answer that question.
Council members voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 16, to approve a resolution that places the measure on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird, who made the motion to approve the resolution, said he doesn’t see the harm in asking voters to weigh in on the proposal.
“It’s a ballot question,” he said. “I mean, if we were to be making the decision of whether or not this was going to be imposed, that would be a totally different thing in my mind … To me, putting it on the ballot is really saying, ‘All right, citizens, it’s up to you to decide.’”
Utah House Bill 362 gives the state’s counties the authority to enact the tax, which would raise 25 cents for every $100 in sales, subject to voter approval.
Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs has said that the tax, if approved, could be imposed on everything but food. Ten cents of every $100 would be divided between the City of Moab, the Town of Castle Valley and unincorporated county areas, while 15 cents would go to Grand County.
Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said the funding could be spent on not just pavement and asphalt, but on sidewalks, trails and any other kind of transportation-related project.
The three local government entities currently face a combined transportation funding shortfall of more than $2.23 million, and Sakrison said he believes the additional funding would be a boon to the county, the City of Moab and the Town of Castle Valley.
“I’m excited about (the council’s vote),” the mayor said. “I think that’s the proper decision: Let’s let the voters decide.”
If a majority of those voters approve the measure, it could generate more than $626,000 annually in new county revenues, according to estimates from Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon and Grand County Clerk/ Auditor Diana Carroll. The City of Moab, meanwhile, would receive an estimated $146,558 in additional revenue each year, while just under $4,000 would go to the Town of Castle Valley each year.
According to Tubbs, all of the funding would be set aside in the county’s general fund and then dispersed to the two other government entities.
Although the projected annual revenue is relatively modest, word of the proposal has fueled speculation that the money could be used to develop a highway through the Book Cliffs.
However, Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann said that advocates of that controversial proposal would not control the purse strings to the additional funding. What’s more, she said, supporters of the Book Cliffs highway idea are not the driving force behind the ballot measure.
“That is not a concern of mine,” McGann said. “The push to do it did not come from the people who want the Book Cliffs road. The push is coming from Mayor Dave and the mayor of Castle Valley (Dave Erley).”
Sakrison said the impetus for the increase came from advocates around the state who want to boost funding for Utah’s transportation needs.
“This is a statewide initiative, and I doubt that everyone in the state wants to build the Book Cliffs road,” he said. “It’s a benefit for all of the cities that need money (for transportation projects). This is an avenue to try to bolster our deficiencies as far as roads and sidewalks and trails go.”
Sakrison encourages voters to support the measure; McGann said she has not yet decided how she’ll vote on the question, although she plans to formally announce her position on the issue ahead of the election.
However, McGann said that area visitors would be paying the bulk of the taxes, since local residents often shop elsewhere to buy essential items that may not be readily available in Moab.
“It will be another way of getting money from the tourists who come to town,” she said. “Every time they buy a T-shirt … and every time they buy something that’s not food, we (would receive) more money.”
Moab Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jodie Hugentobler said she’s heard varying responses to the idea from a handful of local business owners.
One Moab-based Chamber member said the tax would not be a burden on local residents, and would instead shift it onto the visitors who contribute to the wear and tear on the city’s roads and other transportation-related infrastructure, Hugentobler said. Another member called the proposal a prudent approach to support local infrastructure.
On the other hand, Hugentobler heard from two business owners who said they’re surprised to learn that officials are seeking another tax increase; one of those people felt that the proposal just opens the door to future tax hikes.
The council’s action is still subject to legal review, since Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald said his office has not had the opportunity to look at recent changes to the original resolution. But Fitzgerald told the council that he doesn’t foresee any problems with the changes, as they’ve been described to him.
“My understanding is that they’re relatively minor and our review won’t take too long,” he said.
If, for some reason, his office concludes that the changes are significant, Fitzgerald said the resolution would likely return to the council for another vote. And in the event that a majority of city and county voters reject the question this November, the county council could always consider another resolution to place it on the 2016 ballot.
Carroll said that Grand County is among the first in the state to approve the ballot question.
Utah County is unlikely to send the question on to its voters, she said, because it has already scheduled an unrelated tax increase. But officials in most of the state’s other counties have not decided whether or not they will follow Grand County’s lead.
“I think that everyone’s waiting to see what Salt Lake County does, because of the media coverage then,” Carroll said.
At this point, Baird said he hasn’t decided how he’ll mark his ballot.
“But I’m giving myself the opportunity to vote for it – or not,” he said.
Transportation funding proposal will appear on November ballot
To me, putting it on the ballot is really saying, ‘All right, citizens, it’s up to you to decide.’