Utah State Sen. David Hinkins (left) met with Grand County Council member Greg Halliday after a special county council workshop on Tuesday, Aug. 29. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The Utah Legislature’s next session won’t convene for another four months, but county officials are already working to ensure that their priorities are heard in 2018 at the state capitol building in Salt Lake City.

On Tuesday, Aug. 29, five of the Grand County Council’s seven members held an informal workshop with three state lawmakers and outlined some of the major issues they’re dealing with. Mary McGann and Rory Paxman were absent from the meeting with State Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville; Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price; and Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield.

The workshop touched on everything from state funding for a new Utah State University-Moab campus, to proposed changes in state law that would adjust the ways that counties can spend revenues from Transient Room Taxes on overnight accommodations.

Council members had a receptive audience: All three lawmakers hail from rural areas, and they said they strive to further legislation that originates with their constituents in places like Grand County.

“I don’t ever file a bill for what I want because I don’t have an ax to grind,” Watkins said.

Watkins urged council members to attend legislative sessions on a regular basis in order to stay on top of the latest developments at the state capitol.

“You’ve got to be up there when these things happen, and you’ve got to let people know, other than me,” she said. “You’ve got to have a legislative presence … Even if it’s (one) day a week.”

Hinkins addressed one such issue that slipped by the community last year, vowing to make sure that the Moab Interagency Fire Center near Ken’s Lake in far northern San Juan County remains open.

A group of state and federal agencies decided in July to eventually close two dispatch facilities near Moab and Vernal, and consolidate those operations at a new center in Richfield, about 175 road miles west of Moab. That decision was only made after the legislature had adjourned from its 2017 session.

“I just wish that we’d gotten ahead of it before it happened,” Hinkins said.

It didn’t generate significant news coverage at the time, but the Utah Legislature allocated funding earlier this year for the new facility in the Sevier County seat – to Albrecht’s apparent surprise.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.

After news of the planned closure broke, Albrecht said he heard from a Moab-area resident who was upset that the services could be relocated to Richfield. But Albrecht said that the people he’s spoken with in his hometown are not united in support of a new facility there.

“They’re not 100 percent behind it,” he said.

The Moab center covers a nearly 10-million-acre area that extends into western Colorado and northern Arizona. Dispatchers there also respond to an average of 400 incidents per year, during a fire season that typically runs from March through October.

“It’s not just the (potential loss of) jobs; it’s the response times, too,” Hinkins said.

Grand County Council member Greg Halliday, who also serves as a training officer for the Castle Valley Fire Department, said the planned move would negatively impact dispatchers’ coverage of the region.

“There’s a reason why they put it here in the first place,” Halliday said. “Putting it in Richfield is not a wise choice. It’s just too far away.”

Council member brings TRT issue to legislators’ attention

Grand County Council member Curtis Wells brought the lawmakers up to speed on proposed legislative changes to the Utah code that governs how certain revenues from the 4.25 percent Transient Room Tax (TRT) can be spent.

Under the current law, two-thirds of the first 3 percent of revenues from the tax on hotels and other visitor accommodations must be used to establish and promote tourism, the film industry and conventions. The remaining one-third of that money can be used to mitigate the impacts of tourism and recreation.

Former county council member Chris Baird brought the issue to the forefront during a contentious public hearing in June, and then resigned from his seat just hours later.

If state lawmakers approved a related bill, Baird’s proposal would expand that list of funding uses to include higher education and a variety of economic diversification programs and objectives. It would also broaden the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board’s responsibilities to provide deliberation on economic diversification, in addition to the promotion of tourism.

In Baird’s absence, Wells noted that the proposal remains a divisive subject – and one that lawmakers will be hearing about in the months to come.

“I think where the disconnect is, is there’s some people that feel like we’ve achieved that market share (through the promotion of tourism), and our promotion has done its job, and there’s people that feel like you can’t roll back the promotional money without the businesses taking a hit,” he said.

From an outsider’s perspective, Hinkins said he thinks that if tourists feel increasing strains on local infrastructure, that could steer them away from the community in the future.

“The thing that could hurt tourism more than anything is if you have your infrastructure here and people have a (cruddy) experience, they’re not coming back,” he said.

If the issue comes before the legislature, Hinkins said he thinks that lawmakers could expand the scope of TRT allocations.

“That would be the easiest thing to do,” he said. “To change the formula, taking money away because there’s a few people that feel their ox is getting gored by losing their budget as far as the tourism part, that’s going to be a little harder to sell.”

Grand County Council chair Jaylyn Hawks said she thinks it’s possible to agree on a set of parameters that would expand the mitigation of impacts from tourism.

“But for me, it’s a baby step,” Hawks said. “I think that it’s unreasonable to hold all counties to the same formula, because all counties are different … and where one county might be benefiting hugely from putting that whole promotional portion of it toward promotion, another county such as Grand, where there’s a mature tourism economy, could arguably make a little bit better use of just a portion.”

Albrecht said it would ultimately help the community’s cause if people can speak as a unified voice before the legislature.

“I think if you folks can come to agreement with the city and your tourism council and all the players, and then say, ‘We just want to change the scope of it, not the formula’ … we could give you some more leeway on (it),” he said.

Hinkins says matching dollars could boost USU-Moab funding

In other highlights from the workshop, Wells gave the three legislators an overview of plans to build a new USU-Moab campus.

“The community really needs this project,” he said. “A lot of the economic development and the diversification that we want to do surrounds this project.”

As a preface, he said that county officials understand they’re not approaching state lawmakers with the expectation that the legislature will build the community a new USU-Moab building.

Wells and others have been meeting with USU officials in Logan to discuss the project, noting that they recently obtained the university’s commitment that “reasonable” growth at USU-Moab can occur in the future.

“If we’re going to be building the road (to the new campus), then we need to have some commitment that reasonable growth in terms of programming and curriculum can happen,” he said. “We’re working that out right now, and everything is very positive.”

Watkins said it may take lawmakers three to five years to approve a university’s request for appropriations, although an optimistic-sounding Hinkins said that’s not necessarily the case.

“I’ll tell you what: It happens overnight if you have matching money,” he said. “It could happen this session.”

Albrecht reiterated that communities must find some consensus on an issue before someone comes to state lawmakers with a specific request.

“It’s hard for us as a legislature when you say one thing and (someone else) might say another thing,” he said.

Hinkins vows to fight for wildland fire center; Senator open to expanding use of room tax revenues

You’ve got to have a legislative presence … Even if it’s (one) day a week.