A projected county deficit is putting pressure on departments and services to advocate for their share of the 2020 budget.
“We have to figure out how to balance the budget in a sustainable way,” County Clerk and Auditor Chris Baird said on a call with the Moab Sun News on Oct. 2. “We’re trying to make cuts wherever we can, and that’s often in our contributions to other entities.”
The Grand County Emergency Medical Services (GCEMS) Special Service District is scrambling to secure funding for its 2020 budget and to find a property on which to build a new facility. Their needs intersect and conflict with other government entities, departments and organizations.
County funding to the department is slated to be about 50% less in 2020 than it was for 2019, even as operating costs are increasing, according to GCEMS Director Andy Smith. The department has received a 10% increase in call volume over last year, he said, and reimbursements from Medicaid have been decreasing. Billing patients for emergency medical services is capped by Utah state law.
“We don’t have a whole lot of options, especially given the additional costs of a facility,” Smith said to the council, referring to plans for a new GCEMS building in 2020.
GCEMS proposed that the county help offset the budget reduction by redistributing funds from the existing health care sales tax.
Funds from the health care sales tax are split between GCEMS and the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District, whose mission includes overseeing the Canyonlands Care Center.
35% of funds currently go to GCEMS and 65% go to Canyonlands Health Care. The health care sales tax was approved by voters as a proposition on the 2016 ballot.
Smith reminded council members that while Canyonlands Health Care initiated the health care sales tax proposal, GCEMS was critical in advancing the measure.
“EMS was brought in because this would never pass without additional support. So EMS went to every single meeting… supporting and pushing the thing along,” he said.
Joette Langianese, chair of the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District board, opposed GCEMS’s request, asking that the tax distribution remains at the current proportions.
“We really don’t have any other options for revenue other than sales tax and mineral lease,” Langianese noted, “and we are subsidizing the care center for over a million dollars every year.”
Both special service districts acknowledged that they had not had a chance to meet and discuss the issue, but both asserted that their requests would have remained the same.
The council agreed to allow the two parties to meet and try to work out an agreement between themselves and bring it to the council at a later meeting.
NEW FACILITIES MAY PUSH OTHERS OUT
The health care sales tax wasn’t the only contentious issue GCEMS had to bring up at the meeting. GCEMS was recently awarded a nearly five million dollar grant by the state Community Impact Fund Board to construct a new headquarters to replace their current inadequate facilities.
However, a location for the new building hasn’t been found.
As the closing date for the grant approaches, the department is considering various options, all of which present problems of site development, lack of parking, and disruption of existing activities.
The option Smith favors involves putting the new facility in the location of their current training center on 500 East and 100 North.
However, several other organizations and county entities use those facilities, including the American Legion, Friends of the Library, Sand Flats Recreation Area, and Grand County Active Transportation and Trails.
Leaders of these groups were blindsided by the GCEMS request.
Both Andrea Brand, the director of Sand Flats, and Maddie Logowitz, head of the Active Transportation and Trails department, were taken by surprise by the potential of relocating their offices.
“I just wanted to say to Andy, I was very hurt that I did not know about this until I read it on the agenda yesterday,” said Brand, addressing Smith.
Smith apologized that he did not include more people in the loop and emphasized that there were no decisions being made that night.
“All we’re really asking at this point is if the council is open to that discussion,” Smith said, reporting that engineers had stated that the best option for that property would be to demolish the current building and then build a new structure.
“We’re not asking for permission to do that or to move forward with that,” he said. “We’re asking if it can be on the list.”
He did say, however, that a new building on the site would not have space for organizations other than GCEMS due to funding, square footage needs, and parking requirements. The American Legion would remain, as Smith said it is written into a deed restriction on the property.
Logowitz expressed dismay, noting that the plan would displace Active Transportation and Trails, which designs, builds and maintains non-motorized trail systems within Grand County. The department only recently moved into the space, after Grand County Trail Mix employees were incorporated into the county’s community and economic development department.
“We were definitely expecting that this would be a more permanent space for us to expand,” she said. “I am a little concerned about just moving offices every few months as being disruptive in trying to build the department.”
The council members, GCEMS staff and other department heads debated different temporary or permanent relocation options for EMS and the other organizations.
After a lengthy discussion, the council agreed that they would allow the existing site to remain on the list of options for the new GCEMS facility, acknowledging that if that option is selected, there will be many issues to address.
TRANSIENT ROOM TAX REFORM
Council members ironed out the wording of their formal stance on Transient Room Tax (TRT) reform. Utah State Representative Carl Albrecht is working to introduce a bill to the state legislature that would alter regulations on how TRT funds can be used.
Grand County collects a TRT of 4.25% on overnight stays. According to current state law, at least 47% of those funds must be used to pay for marketing and promotion of tourism. Albrecht has been working with the Utah Association of Counties to adjust those rules.
After meeting with the Moab Area Travel Council and representatives from the Moab Chamber of Commerce, Grand County Council has drafted a letter addressed to Albrecht and lobbyist Lincoln Shurtz which outlines the kind of reform the county would support—namely, adjusting the minimum percentage spent on promotion from 47% to 32%, with a dollar-based floor that would not drop below the amount spent on promotion in 2018. The county noted in the letter that they would like to have some flexibility on that floor if overall TRT funds were to significantly drop.
Area business owners and representatives commented in support of the promotional spending minimum, including Carla Gregory as a representative of the newly-formed Moab Hospitality Network.
“We agree with keeping the base floor at the 2018 level,” Gregory told the council.
“We are down in revenue and occupancy. The fact that the tax revenue is higher, it just means that there are more businesses—but the pot is being spread among more of us. So please keep that in mind. We cannot afford any more decrease in advertising and marketing,” she said.
The council voted to approve the statement, with Jaylyn Hawks in opposition and Rory Paxman abstaining.
The council must soon decide whether they intend to increase property taxes within Grand County.
To comply with Utah’s Truth in Taxation law, the council must inform the public of their intent to increase taxes, the dollar amount of the increase, the purpose for the increase, and the approximate percentage of the increase by October 22.
“If the council wishes to make up that deficit by a property tax increase, they would have to approve that at the next meeting on Oct. 15,” County Clerk/Auditor Chris Baird advised the council.
Councilmember Curtis Wells said he would consider cutting jobs from the county workforce to decrease the county’s expenses.
County Attorney Christina Sloan noted that a recent needs assessment of the county was conducted by an outside consultant. The assessment concluded that more employees, not less, were needed in her department.
Wells dismissed the importance of the assessment findings.
“Honestly I feel like the needs assessment was a pretty disappointing report and process,” he said. “In a lot of ways I felt like it was just an extension of narratives and opinions and perspectives, however right and wrong, that were in the county.”