Travel board members Howard Trenholme and Elaine Gizler discuss the proposed 2019 budget with the travel council advisory board. [Photo by Heila Ershadi / Moab Sun News]

Could a revision of state law on Transient Room Tax (TRT), imposed on hotels and temporary lodging, allow Grand County to mitigate tourism’s impacts, while preserving its economic benefits? Grand County Council vice chair Curtis Wells thinks it could.

“Common sense reform to this law is going to allow the county to provide sustainable services to the county residents, without having to raise taxes on the property owners and taxpayers,” Wells said in a phone interview with the Moab Sun News.

Wells said he expects that a bill to change the code around TRT will be put forth in the Utah Legislature’s 2019 session.

This bill, Wells said, could amend the law’s stipulations for how the funding is appropriated, and possibly expand how TRT funds may be used to mitigate tourism’s impacts.  

Though Wells said he is not sure if there is a draft bill yet, or which legislator would be sponsor it, he believes such a bill would have broad support among Grand County residents.

“I think there’s consensus in Grand County that we could dial back the advertisement from two-thirds to one-half,” Wells said.

Current state code mandates at least two-thirds of the first 3 percent of the TRT tax be allocated to tourism promotion.

Wells sees support for more local control on how mitigation is funded.

“It makes sense for those funds to be unrestricted so we can use that money wherever we need,” he said.

The current law states that funding to mitigate recreation and tourism is spent on certain uses, such as solid waste disposal, emergency medical services, search and rescue and law enforcement.

Wells pointed to House Bill 367, sponsored in the Utah legislature’s 2018 General Session by Rep. Michael Noel and Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, and said it could have also changed the TRT allocation formula.

Wells said the bill was not driven by Grand County, and that the impacts of tourism are not unique to the Moab area.

“It’s logical to expect that another bill will surface in the 2019 session,” he said.

The possibility of change to the state code to modify TRT spending was discussed at a special meeting held by the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board on Tuesday, Aug. 28.  

The meeting’s purpose was to review and vote on the travel council’s proposed 2019 budget, and to discuss a list of possible recommendations for the Grand County Council on the best uses for future TRT revenues ahead of a Grand County Budget Advisory Board meeting the following day.  

The budget officer, incoming Grand County Clerk and Auditor Chris Baird, is scheduled to make the budget recommendations to the Grand County Council by Nov. 1.

At the special meeting, the travel council’s executive director, Elaine Gizler, discussed the travel council’s budget, which initially included a 10.5 percent decrease to the advertising budget in anticipation of possible changes to state law. 

Gizler said that if the legislature passes a bill, the travel council could potentially be affected as early as fall of 2019.  

“I don’t want to get out there and say we’re going to spend as much as we did last year,” Gizler said.

“It’s really something to say, there’s going to be a 10.5 percent cut in the advertising budget,” Moab City Manager David Everitt said.  

Everitt suggested they could use “fund balance” to bridge the gap in funding, if necessary.

“That could be a possibility,” Gizler replied, and said she would discuss it with the Grand County Budget Advisory Board the next day.

At the budget advisory board meeting on Aug. 29, when Gizler and Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board chair Howard Trenholme presented the travel council’s draft budget, Baird recommended that the travel council budget for the 2019 advertising with the assumption that the law will stay the same, Gizler said in an interview with the Moab Sun News following that meeting. She said that in the event the law does change, there will be a public hearing to change the budget based on the new laws.

The travel council’s draft budget for 2019 currently apportions just over $2.5 million for all forms of promotion in 2019, while expecting $2.4 million to be spent in 2018.  

Not all promotion money comes from TRT; Gizler reported securing $250,000 in grant funding from the Utah Office of Tourism to be used for advertising outside Utah in 2019.

At the travel council’s special meeting on Aug. 28, Gizler said that promotions in 2019 will focus on events in late November through February.  

“Our mission statement says that we want 12 months a year for people to work,” she said. “If we entice people to come here, we can have people working all year long.”

Gizler said that she wants the public to know “how much tourist taxes help our community.”  

She said that during the budget advisory meeting, she learned the TRT revenues collected will surpass the Grand County property taxes collected in 2018.  

“The county allocation of the TRT goes directly to the county, and offsets the over $2 million for the sheriff’s department,” Gizler said, adding that they also “provide funding for the travel council to inform, inspire and persuade the visitors to take all that we have here in Moab and protect, care and leave for future generations to enjoy.”

The travel council’s draft budget includes $85,000 for the Thompson Visitors Center, as well as $31,050 for staff at the Moab Information Center (MIC) and $6,000 to help keep their public restrooms open in the evening hours.  

“They are a huge asset to the community,” Gizler said of the MIC. “We should contribute to supporting them.”

At the special meeting, Gizler also advocated for the hiring of a part-time social media coordinator.

“You cannot own a business today and not do social media,” she said. “And essentially what we are running in the city and the county are businesses. You need a part-time person who has the bandwidth to take that on.”

Trenholme presented a draft list of recommendations for the Grand County Council on the best use of future TRT revenue.

At the top of the list was using TRT funds to create “essential” housing.

“The need for housing is desperate,” Trenholme said. “We have the job creation, but we don’t have the facilities to accommodate them.” 

He said the term “essential” should be used when discussing the need to create the housing fund, as he feels those positions are essential to the tourism economy in the county.

“The dishwasher is essential,” he said. “The busboys are essential.”

Other language in the draft list included funds to promote the safe use of lands, collecting TRT monies from campsites and reimbursements to Grand County for emergency services.  

The travel council advisory board tabled the list and agreed to communicate about it over email. Gizler said the board will discuss the revised list at the next meeting on Sept. 11, at 3 p.m., in the Grand County Council chambers.

County council, budget advisory board and travel council weigh in on Transient Room Tax spending for 2019

“Common sense reform to this law is going to allow the County to provide sustainable services to the county residents without having to raise taxes on the property owners and taxpayers.”