County Clerk / Auditor Chris Baird formally swears in new councilmember Gabriel Woytek. [Photo by Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

This week’s Grand County Council meeting was a long one, covering a wide range of agenda items, including a discussion of the 2020 budget and a proposed property tax increase.

A new face was added to the council, a Motorized Trail Advisory Committee was created and the council discussed items related to next year’s budget.

Gabriel Woytek replaces Morse on council

The council swore in Gabriel Woytek as its newest member on Tuesday night. Woytek is the farm manager for the Youth Garden Project, a local non-profit dedicated to educating youth in farming and gardening. He will be filling the vacancy left by the resignation of Terry Morse.

Woytek will serve out the remainder of Morse’s term, until the first Monday of 2021 when a newly elected council member will be sworn in.

Seven Grand County citizens applied for the appointment to council. Each was privately interviewed ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting when the council then interviewed them publicly as a group. Ashley Korenblat withdrew her application before this second interview, stating that there were already enough qualified applicants in the field.

Councilmembers asked the remaining six applicants how they would approach current issues facing the body.

Councilmember Mary McGann asked interviewees to give their thoughts on the discussion regarding overnight accommodations.

“There’s an ongoing crisis that we all are aware of… there are people who are needing long-term housing and it’s being gobbled up by overnight housing,” Woytek said. He said the council should not feel rushed to make decisions on the important issue quickly.

“To lift the moratorium [on overnight accommodations] or rush to a decision, I don’t think would be wise,” he said.

Councilmember Curtis Wells posited that the county is well on its way to addressing the affordable housing problem, and asked applicants what they saw as the next big issues the council faces.

To this, Woytek responded that the council must work “to continue to improve education, and improve the environment for our youth [with] first-class institutions and programs…so that the most talented and brightest people that live and grow up here will stay here and start businesses.”

Supporting young people who have grown up in the area will be crucial for the future of the city, Woytek said, since “they know better than anyone else what kind of economy our locals here want.”

Wells also asked about the candidates’ stances on growth—whether they advocated reining in growth or planning for controlled but continued growth.

“I feel that tourism, as much as possible, should be paying for the growing pains associated with growth—even if that adversely affects growth,” Woytek said.

Councilmember Rory Paxman asked what insight and experience the new council member would bring to the council’s budget process. Woytek pointed to his experience serving on three different non-profit boards, where he looked at budgets “line-by-line.”

Wells asked candidates to demonstrate their willingness to work with people representing perspectives other than their own.

“Do you feel like you’re coming to this position to represent a tribe, with a banner?” Wells asked. “And if so, who is that? Because where the council’s at its best is when we’re… working as a team. At our worst is when we’re sitting here clinging on to our tribes.”

On identifying his “tribe,” Woytek said, “I would say that I’m not afraid to identify as a progressive thinker, but I don’t see this as a partisan position.”

In response to this question, Eve Tallman, one of the other applicants for the position, actually endorsed Woytek as a good choice to diversify the council.

“What I would personally like to see on the council is a younger demographic, such as Gabe,” Tallman said. “I think he represents so many people in this community who are young and energized and serve the community and those in need.”

As an example of working with people from diverse perspectives, Woytek described his work in teaching farming practices at the Youth Garden Project. He said he strongly believes in organic practices, but he is careful not to lead with the “o-word” when teaching workshops because he doesn’t want to turn people off to receiving information by politicizing his message.

“I fully understand and see when injecting politics into the situation can only detract from consensus-building and decision-making,” Woytek said.

Councilmember Greg Halliday moved to appoint Woytek as the new councilmember. The motion passed, with Wells and Paxman in opposition.

Councilmembers took time to sincerely thank all the applicants and emphasize that they were all appreciated for their qualifications and willingness to serve.

“I am so impressed. I love you all—I want to work with all of you!” said Councilmember Jaylyn Hawks.

McGann encouraged the other candidates to apply for an upcoming vacancy on the Grand County Planning Commission, and Hawks reminded them that there will be another opportunity to try to get on the council, when five seats go up for re-election in the next election cycle. 

Motorized Trails Committee Formed

The council unanimously approved the establishment of a Motorized Trails Advisory Committee.

Clif Koontz is the director of the non-profit group Ride with Respect, which advocates for trail access for multiple user groups and conservation of recreation areas.

Koontz has been working with Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan to draft a set of bylaws for a Motorized Trails Committee, modeled on the existing Trail Mix Advisory Committee, which helps keep the council informed on issues related to non-motorized trails.

Ride with Respect was founded almost twenty years ago, and since then, Koontz said, has donated around 20,000 hours of service work on public lands.

A lot of the work, Koontz explained, is on projects “like re-routes away from sensitive resources, to both conserve the resources that surround the trail and conserve the access to the trail itself.”

However, Koontz and other four-wheeling enthusiasts see a need for a more formal relationship with the county.

“We feel that our work just isn’t keeping up with the pace of more use, and more types of use, that’s out there,” Koontz said.

“So this past May, we decided that the best way to expand the scale of our stewardship is through basically borrowing Trail Mix’s approach of more formally collaborating with one another, and with the land managers, through a county committee.”

Zacharia Levine, Director of the County Department of Community and Economic Development, stood to endorse the establishment of the committee.

“I think that this Motorized Trails Committee is actually long overdue,” Levine said. “It’s really exciting to see all of the user groups coming together and acknowledging the need and the potential for this group.”

Council Chair Evan Clapper agreed that the committee will be a big help to the council, citing recent policy changes at land management agencies regarding e-bikes and OHVs.

“It’s nice to be able to have a voice that we can kind of lean to for someone to speak for the community,” Clapper said, “and so I think it’s a great idea.”

Debating a Health Care Sales Tax

The council also discussed a contentious issue that had been tabled at a meeting in September—the allocation of the health care facilities sales tax, which is collected at a rate of .05%. The tax can only be used to pay for expenses related to medicine and healthcare.

Last year, the funds were split between two Special Service Districts in the county: Grand County Emergency Medical Services and Canyonlands Health Care. Canyonlands Health Care receives 65% of the funds, while 35% goes towards EMS services.

In the past, both districts have also received money from the county’s Mineral Lease fund, but this year, the council has slated that money to go elsewhere, leaving the districts scrambling for resources.

The two districts have different needs, different ways of collecting revenues, and are allocated different amounts of money by the county from other funds. Still, the drop in funding stemming from the Mineral Lease funding has the districts looking hard at the uneven split of the health care sales tax revenue.

At a previous council meeting, Grand County EMS Director Andy Smith requested that the health care facilities tax be split fifty-fifty between the two districts in 2020.

Smith reported that the district’s call volume has gone up 11.5% in the past year. The district is also in the midst of planning for a new facility.

Smith reminded the council that when the EMS Special Service District was created in 2017, increasing the percentage of the health care sales tax allocated to EMS was part of the business plan.

“Expenses increase as call volume goes up, of course,” Smith said.

He noted that both EMS and the Canyonlands Health Care are limited in their revenue streams.

“We’re kind of in the same boat, as far as that goes,” he said.

“Our hope is… to have some sort of long-term plan about this so that it’s not a ‘battle royale’ every year,” Smith concluded.

Canyonlands Health Care has requested that the division of funds remain at the current proportions, stating that without the Mineral Lease allocation they had been counting on, they are already underfunded.

Council members went back and forth, debating various funding splits. A slight change to a 60-40 split prevailed in the end, with Wells and Clapper voting in opposition.

Canyonlands Health Care Chair Joette Langianese said such a move would be “catastrophic” for her district’s bottom line.

“With that 60-40, I don’t know if we’ll even be able to operate the care center beyond next year,” Langianese told the council. “And these residents in our community that we built this center for, so that they didn’t have to leave, will have to leave.”

An Energy-Efficient Future

In 2017, the Utah Legislature enacted the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Act (C-PACE), which creates a financing tool for commercial property owners to install energy-efficient upgrades on new or existing properties.

The Radcliffe Hotel, a business that has plans to build a boutique hotel on the property where the Gearheads store is currently located, has applied to use that financing tool. This project will be one of the first in Utah to take advantage of the C-PACE act.

“Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy… enables commercial developers to integrate energy efficiency and renewable energy elements into their projects,” explained Levine.

“The way it works is that a private lender will lend to the developer, and with the approval of the jurisdiction in which it’s located, the financing can be placed as a long term assessment on the property and paid back over time on a property tax bill.”

“Hopefully, in the long run, this will initiate a lot more energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and design elements within development projects in the community,” Levine said, “so it’s a good thing.”

Hawks asked if there were any risks associated with approving the measure. Sloan assured her that the legal agreements release the county from all liability.

The council approved the deal unanimously.

Council Supports Public Comment Before Asphalt Plant Approved

A letter to the Utah Division of Air Quality regarding a proposed Spanish Valley asphalt plant was passed unanimously by the council. The letter notes that public comment on the San Juan County-based project was not solicited in Grand County, even though a large number of Grand County residents would be directly affected by potential environmental consequences from the plant.

The letter requests that before the permit application for the plant is approved, the public comment period be extended by 60 days to allow Grand County to research the potential effects of the plant and submit their feedback.