At their regular meeting on June 23, Moab City Council heard presentations from the Moab Chief of Police, and the City Finance Director, and discussed the budget, the MRAC, and the Fourth of July.
Taxes and services
City Finance Director Klint York updated the council on spring sales tax revenues, which were significantly higher than the grim projections made early in the pandemic. It takes about two months for those tax revenues to show up in city coffers after consumers pay at the cash register, so staff has been unsure of how deep the impacts of the spring COVID-19 restrictions and business closure have been.
York and his staff made conservative estimates that April revenues would be about 10% of normal. Ultimately, April’s revenues came in much higher, at about 44% of normal.
In a “normal” spring month, the city expects to receive about $860,000 in sales tax; this April’s revenue was $375,000.
“Everyone needs to thank our local citizens for getting out and hitting the local markets, getting your take-out,” said York. He noted that they could also expect upcoming months to likely produce higher revenues than projected.
City Manager Joel Linares reminded the council that while the outcome was not as dire as they feared, it was still a significant shortfall.
“While it’s great news that we didn’t lose as much as we thought, it nowhere near gets us where we need to be,” Linares said.
York also gave a presentation on finances at the Moab Recreation and Aquatics Center. The MRAC has been closed since the initial COVID shut-downs. Citizens have been clamoring for the pool and fitness center to open, but until recently staff had judged it too expensive to operate on the city’s tight budget.
York’s presentation compared revenues and expenses of operating the MRAC since 2012. The facility brings in about $300,000 annually, with that figure increasing in recent years to over $400,000. However, the cost of operating has increased from just over half a million dollars to over a million dollars during that time.
York displayed graphs showing the largest expense of operating the MRAC is staff wages and benefits. City staff received pay increases in 2017, which significantly bumped up those costs at the MRAC from that year onward.
Staff discussed adjusting labor rates, adjusting hours, offering concessions, and/or raising fees to try to reduce the gap between revenues and expenses. There is also hope that if citizens approve the Recreation, Arts, and Parks tax that will be on the ballot this fall, those taxes could be spent on the MRAC as well.
“I don’t think we expect this to ever operate in the black, I don’t think that’s realistic,” said Linares. But achieving a smaller loss will be important for financial stability.
The MRAC will be opening with limited services and hours this Friday, June 26; lifeguard wages will be reduced from the $17-$18 per hour range they were at to $10-$12 an hour. One citizen comment expressed outrage at an experienced MRAC employee being let go. Two citizens submitted comments asking that the fitness center, as well as the pool, resume operations.
For more information on the Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center’s partial reopening, please see our article “Library building, pool to reopen.”
Moab City Police Chief Bret Edge presented to the council on how his department is examining their policies, in particular use-of-force, and his response to the “8 Can’t Wait” recommendations for police reform championed by Black Lives Matter and other activists fighting to end police brutality.
Edge went through each of the eight demands and compared those policies to existing MPD standards. He said that while MPD policies are similar to those recommended, his department usually uses language that allows for more officer discretion.
For example, MPD policy might say that an officer “should” or “should not” do something like use a chokehold, while the recommended policies strengthen those guidelines into strict requirements.
Edge advocates for retaining the less strict language, saying police officers need the leeway to make decisions based on a specific situation.
“When you use the word ‘should,’ it allows for some officer discretion,” said Edge. “Following policy, but then having some discretion to act as necessary.”
Niehaus noted that in the recent Utah League of Cities and Towns meeting that she attended, that body voted to support state legislation banning the use of chokeholds by police.
Edge did fully support two recommendations from the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. The first is that officers have a duty to intervene if they observe another officer using excessive force; the second requires officers to report all threatened uses of force or uses of force.
“I don’t think this is something that an officer should have any discretion on,” Edge said. “If an officer sees another officer using excessive force or for that matter doing anything outside of policy, I think they have to report.”
Edge said his department already requires such reporting, and is expanding the analysis included in their reporting.
Against oil and gas leasing
Councilmember Kalen Jones drafted a letter to the Bureau of Land Management opposing the agency’s September oil and gas lease sale, which is set to include over 80,000 acres of land in the Moab area. The deadline for comments on the sale is July 7.
“I’ve been around blasting flares, and I can tell you it sounds like a jet engine landing,” said Councilmember Rani Derasary, sharing that she has visited relatives in areas with more oil and gas development than Grand County. “I can talk to you about fumes and other air impacts… I don’t want any part in telling future generations in Moab that I didn’t do anything I could to stop them from having these impacts to their community.”
Two citizen comments submitted electronically and published on the city’s website after the meeting asked the council to officially oppose the extensive oil and gas leasing outlined in the BLM’s Environmental Assessment.
The council voted unanimously to sign the letter of opposition.
The city is planning a Fourth of July celebration at the Center Street Ball Park, in spite of the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus risk levels and current fire restrictions.
Liz Holland, executive director of City Recreation, has been planning the event. She said nine members of the Moab Chamber of Commerce had declined to be vendors at the event, but she was still looking to contact more.
Holland said that the celebration will include volleyball games, a lemonade stand, at least one food vendor, performances from the Fiery Furnace Marching Band and sprinklers for kids to play in.
A fireworks display will be held from Sand Flats Recreation Area; personal fireworks will be permitted within Center Street Ball Park, but nowhere else within city limits. A similar restriction was in place last year, but several violations occurred.
“I was the only one there—I was running around trying to get people to stop,” remembered Linares, adding ruefully, “I’m not the most intimidating of individuals.”
Linares said that law enforcement later arrived and achieved compliance.
City staff will be patrolling the park perimeter this year to encourage compliance. There will be extra watering on the park lawn ahead of the celebration to make sure the grass is moist and to reduce the risk of fire.
Moab City Council meetings are held on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. For agendas and current meeting policies, go to www.moabcity.org/151/City-Council
“While it’s great news that we didn’t lose as much as we thought, it nowhere near gets us where we need to be.”
– Joel Linares
Early projections of COVID impacts were extreme