The Grand County Transportation Special Service District spent 4,000 last year on improvements to Spring Canyon Road. A measure on the county's Nov. 3 ballot would increase funding for local transportation projects, if approved. [Photo courtesy of Bill Love]

If their minds aren’t made up yet, undecided Grand County voters still have a few more days to help determine the fate of a proposed sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot.

As of Oct. 28, voters had returned just under 1,600 of the 4,552 ballots that the Grand County Clerk’s Office sent out, for an estimated response rate of 35 percent, according to Clerk Diana Carroll.

With less than a week to go before all mail-in ballots are due, citizens and elected officials made their final cases for and against Proposition 1, which would impose a 0.25 percent tax on non-food items to fund improvements to county roads, trails and sidewalks.

Supporters of the countywide ballot measure say it would help local government entities catch up on long-delayed transportation projects. It would raise 25 cents for every $100 spent on everything but food, with 15 cents going to Grand County, while the remainder would be divided between the City of Moab, the Town of Castle Valley and unincorporated county areas.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said the county faces an overall backlog of $2,234,000 in deferred road maintenance and improvement work, while the city has fallen $1.3 million behind.

The mayor said the city currently receives about $190,000 in class C road funds. By his estimates, the tax would bring an additional $146,000 into the city’s coffers each year, and although that’s far short of the city’s long-term needs, Sakrison said that every bit of extra funding would help.

“We’ve got a need,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is drive down 4th North and 4th East – any road in this city – and I’ll guarantee you, there’s a need for road improvements.”

Sakrison said that over the longer term, the city’s needs go far beyond simple repairs to potholes and cracked sidewalks.

“Just to overlay 28 miles of roads in the city, with a 2-inch overlay of asphalt, would cost over $7 million, and that’s just the asphalt to fix the roads,” he said.

Critics contend that while the quarter-of-one-cent figure doesn’t sound like much, it would add up over time. They say an average family of four could expect to pay an extra $120 a year – roughly the equivalent of at least a week’s worth of groceries for many people.

Moab resident Dave Cozzens, who submitted the official ballot argument against the proposal on behalf of Americans for Prosperity’s Utah chapter, maintains the tax would hurt lower-income and middle-class families who can least afford it.

Although trails are “nice,” his argument says, the community should consider its needs before it imposes a new tax on residents who already face other tax increases.

“Instead, our government should be looking toward prioritizing existing funds, cutting down on waste, and reducing inefficiencies wherever they find them,” it says.

Although Americans for Prosperity and the Utah Taxpayers Association have weighed in against Proposition 1, the local debate surrounding the proposal is not neatly divided along the usual partisan lines.

Speaking at an Oct. 19 Grand County League of Women Voters forum, and again at an Oct. 20 Grand County Council public hearing on the proposal, local environmentalist Bill Love urged residents to hold off on the increase for the time being.

Love is reluctant because he’s concerned about the Grand County Transportation Special Service District’s recent funding priorities – some of which, he believes, have benefited the oil and gas industry at the expense of ordinary residents.

“I’m not against better roads – that’s a given,” he said. “But I am concerned that the funds that we currently have going to roads (are) not going to the benefit of Grand County residents.”

In 2014, the district contributed $10,000 to a study that examined the feasibility of building a new road through the Book Cliffs that would connect the Uintah Basin with Interstate 70.

Last year, he said, the district spent another $94,000 on improvements to Spring Canyon Road off state Route 313. But he noted that those improvements end about 1,000 feet beyond the last oil well in the area.

Looking ahead to 2016, the district has appropriated $60,000 for upgrades to Dubinky Wells Road.

As the oil and gas industry expands its footprint in the Big Flat area, Love anticipates that truck traffic around 313 will double and triple over the next three to four years. With more industry traffic on those roads, he questions who should be responsible for funding future improvements to that infrastructure.

In the future, Love wants the county to negotiate with oil companies for the costs to build and maintain public roads. He noted that the county council also has the authority to cut off the district’s funding, or even take over or dissolve its board.

Until that happens, he said, he doesn’t see the pressing need to approve the tax, arguing that it can go always go on the 2016 ballot.

Special service district board member Robert Knight countered that the district does not have the authority to spend any funding from the proposed sales tax, unless the Grand County Council specifically sets that money aside.

And while a majority of the district board’s members voted to fund the Book Cliffs feasibility study, Knight said there is no hidden agenda to build a new route through the rugged area.

“The (district) would never have that kind of money for a road to be built,” he said in a letter to the editor of the Moab Sun News. “(It) would also not have any say as to where a potential road would be built or why.”

Overall, he said, Love’s opinion about the district’s “misguided efforts” is not backed up by facts.

The district plans to spend $865,200 on 11 main projects in 2016, according to a memo from Grand County Road Supervisor Bill Jackson to the county council. That includes $362,200 in matching funds to upgrade the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, and $200,000 on a chip seal project to repair Gateway Road.

Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird said he believes the county will likely stick with the road department’s priority list as it divvies out additional funding for transportation projects.

“Probably most of the money would go toward the road projects that the road department has identified as long range, medium term and long term,” he said.

Baird said he thinks it’s possible that part of the municipal portion could be distributed by population.

“But the vast majority of the tax is going to stay in Grand County,” he said.

Spanish Valley resident Floyd Dean said he believes the wording that the council presented to voters is simply too unclear.

“It lists no specific projects for the residents to really vote on,” he said. “It’s so vague that you just throw it up against the wall and see what sticks, and then you go ahead and do it after it’s been voted in.”

A similar ballot measure came before voters in a rapidly expanding Georgia county where Dean previously lived.

The first time it appeared on the ballot, the wording resembled Proposition 1, and voters soundly defeated it, he said. After that happened, officials reworded the measure, clearly explaining how they would spend the additional funds. They also attached a two-year sunset provision to the measure, and after they did so, Dean said that voters repeatedly approved it by large margins.

“People saw what was being done,” he said.

Dean said he believes a local transportation tax could ultimately succeed in the future if the county council changes the wording of the initiative, which the Utah Legislature drafted.

“If it’s done that way, I think it will pass,” he said.

Local option sales tax is on county’s Nov. 3 ballot