Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District Board vice chair Doug Fix, right rear, shared his thoughts on an argument in support of a proposed health care sales tax as Grand County Council member Mary McGann, left, and CHCSSD member Kirstin Peterson listened. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The Grand County Council made the case this week in support of a proposed health care sales tax that would boost funding for the Canyonlands Care Center and county-run Emergency Medical Services.

By a 6-0 vote on Tuesday, Sept. 6, the council approved the wording of a voter information pamphlet item that outlines the arguments for the proposal, which will appear on voters’ general election ballots this fall as Proposition 3. Council member Chris Baird was absent from the meeting.

If approved, the proposed tax would raise an additional penny for every $2 – or 50 cents for every $100 – that residents and visitors spend on goods and services, excluding gasoline and “groceries used in food preparation.”

Starting next April, the Utah State Tax Commission would then disburse 100 percent of those funds on a quarterly basis to the county council, which would, in turn, allocate funding to the care center’s governing board. Additional funding would go to Grand County Emergency Medical Services, which currently faces a project funding shortfall of $480,000 – even as its response rate has jumped 53 percent over the last decade.

Supporters of the proposal say the tax is needed to offset a major loss in mineral lease revenues from oil and gas development in Grand County, following the late-2014 global plunge in oil prices.

Although every bed at the facility is currently occupied – and the care center’s governing board recently increased the daily rates it charges its private-pay residents – they say those changes cannot make up for the decline in mineral lease money.

According to Canyonlands Care Center Business Manager Tom Lacy, the health care district’s share of mineral lease revenues dropped from more than $1 million during the previous two years, to an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 this year.

Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District (CHCSSD) Board vice chair Doug Fix has repeatedly said that without a reliable funding source – either the sales tax or something else – the care center’s operations simply can’t continue.

“And we don’t know of any other possible source,” Fix told the county council.

“It’s not like we haven’t examined many alternatives in terms of ownership, lease, other operators, et cetera,” he added. “And at least for the services provided in that facility, without a public subsidy, I’m convinced – and based on the four years we’ve looked at this, I think … all of us are convinced – that really that is the starkness of the situation.”

However, the motion from Grand County Council vice chair Jaylyn Hawks ultimately toned down the original argument in support of the proposal and reworded it slightly to say that the facility will close without a reliable funding source.

“As it (was), those two concepts (were) separate,” Hawks said.

Hawks’ motion mirrors a recommendation from Grand County Council member Mary McGann, who suggested that the council should come up with wording that will help make the strongest case in favor of the proposal. If they’d left the wording as is, McGann said she was concerned that the council could alienate voters who might perceive it as a fear tactic, based on feedback she heard from residents who said they don’t like to be threatened.

“I want it to pass, and I was like, are we going to turn some people off because they going to feel, ‘Oh, you’re just threatening me?’” McGann asked.

Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said that when she first saw McGann’s choice of wording, she believed it was “a nice way of putting it.” But she questioned whether an alternate funding source is ultimately available.

“Part of me is right where you’re at, but now, listening to this, the other part of me is (thinking), ‘We need to be able to tell people what’s at stake here,’” Tubbs said.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson suggested that it might be helpful to voters and the county’s elected officials if the care center’s governing board shares its reports on the facility’s income and its operating expenses.

The county’s official argument itself is limited to 500 words, and CHCSSD Board member Kirstin Peterson said she and others tried to ensure that the information is as concise and accurate as possible. Among other things, she said, they want to clear up some apparent confusion among people who mistakenly believe that funding from the tax could be diverted to Moab Regional Hospital, a privately run nonprofit facility.

“This can only be used for government-owned facilities … and the hospital is not that,” she said.

Proposition 3 is one of two proposed tax increases that will appear on voters’ ballots this fall. The Grand County Board of Education is also asking voters to approve a 0.001 percent levy to gradually bring school district employees’ salaries in line with the state average, while boosting support for academic programs.

The latest proposals follow a 47.18 percent increase in the Grand County Cemetery Maintenance District’s certified property tax rate, and a transportation sales tax on non-food items that voters approved in 2015.

Grand County Republican Party chair Curtis Wells has questioned why local elected leaders continue to propose tax increases, even as poverty rates are climbing in Grand County.

“We’re not going to tax our way out of poverty and into financial stability,” he told the Moab Sun News last week. “Every one of these tax increases is being sold in a vacuum, but at this rate, our current trajectory is unsustainable. You can’t keep reaching for the people’s back-pockets and also provide upward mobility … I’m very disappointed to see multiple tax increase proposals on the ballot every year.”

If voters approve the health care sales tax proposal, it would be imposed for a 10-year period, and could be extended for another 10 years, assuming that Grand County’s population does not increase significantly.

In the event that they reject the increase, the county will nonetheless continue to be on the hook for $370,000 per year in construction bond payments, according to the district’s statement to voters.

Under that scenario, Fix said that his board will immediately reach out to the city, county and community in search of another reliable funding source, to ensure that the care center’s doors remain open far into the future.

“I think we need to convey to the public, we don’t have an alternative that we know available, and we’d be looking to the county council and the city council and sort of the collective community to see if there was something,” he said. “But it’s something that we’ve thought about, and these are hard things to get across to the community, that this is the kind of facility that can’t have a month-to-month, hanging-on basis. People have to have confidence in its viability or its long-term stability.”

Revenue would support Care Center and EMS; Council OKs argument for voter info pamphlet

I want it to pass, and I was like, are we going to turn some people off because they going to feel, ‘Oh, you’re just threatening me?’