Finances made up the bulk of discussions at the Dec. 1 Grand County Commission pre-meeting budget workshop and regular meeting. After a tumultuous year, the 2020 budget has had to be amended to reflect unexpected ups and downs in county revenues and expenses. At the same time, the 2021 proposed budget is nearing the final approval step. In addition to county budgets, the commission reviewed an independent audit of the county and approved the allocation of grant funding from the CARES Act.
Grand County Commission Administrator Chris Baird asked commissioners for direction on several amendments to the 2020 county budget and to the proposed 2021 budget.
For the past few months, the Budget Advisory Committee has been working on budget details and bringing discussion items to the commission, including a 1.4% cost-of-living adjustment to salaries for commission members and other elected officials, an increase already allocated to non-elected county staff.
Several new county staff positions have been tentatively approved, including a prosecutorial assistant in the County Attorney’s office, a new corrections sergeant for the Grand County Jail, a Sheriff’s Office deputy whose position will be reimbursed by the Bureau of Land Management and two new compliance officers for the Moab Area Travel Council and Sheriff’s Office.
Commissioners discussed allocations for capital improvements to the Old Spanish Trail Arena and the Canyonlands Regional Airport, as well as allocations to other agencies, such as the Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, Moab Valley Fire, and the Moab Museum.
Meeting participants discussed the use of funds from the state’s Transient Room Tax, long a source of local frustration as the state code requires funds to be used on promotion of tourism in the area. Commissioners supported the idea of using some TRT funds earmarked for tourism promotion to pay for part-time “trail ambassadors” to staff popular trailheads, like the Power Dam area in Moab, during the busy season. The trail ambassadors would help to educate visitors and act as a deterrent for vandalism and resource degradation.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said County Attorney Christina Sloan, adding, “I’m ready to defend that; I think it’s an allowable use of promotional monies.”
The commission agreed to earmark $15,000 of promotional TRT for the program.
Other TRT funds were allocated to replace aging billboards advertising Moab, towards installing signage for recently passed speed limits for OHVs, and for the “establishment of youth recreation.”
The commission will vote on amendments to the 2020 budget and on adopting the 2021 budget at their next meeting, on Dec. 15. Information on the budget can be found on the county’s website and citizens are invited to comment until Dec. 9.
Commissioners heard a presentation on the county’s financial statements from Doug Rasmussen, a certified public accountant at Smuin, Rich & Marsing, a Price-based company that performed an independent audit on Grand County’s finances.
The auditor’s report gave both a “qualified opinion” and an “unmodified opinion.” The qualified opinion states that the county’s basic financial statements appear to be a fair representation of its financial position; however, the three special service districts—Water, Transportation, and Thompson Springs—included in the county’s financial statements have not been audited. Therefore, Smuin, Rich & Marsing could not comment on the possible effects of the finances of those bodies on the county’s financial position.
The special service districts are independent political subdivisions, and not necessarily required to undergo an annual audit. However, they do have to submit their financial statements for inclusion in the county’s audit.
Commissioner Curtis Wells was dismayed by the qualification.
“Just to be clear for the non-financial folks on the board, a qualified opinion is not a good thing,” said Wells. “That is not a positive thing.”
A qualified opinion in an auditor’s report “suggests the financial information… was limited in scope or there was a material issue with regard to the application of generally accepted accounting principles—but one that is not pervasive,” according to Investopedia.
Rasmussen was less concerned, noting that the issue was common in Utah.
“Yours is not the only county in Utah that has qualifications on opinions” for similar reasons, he said. “It’s no reflection on the county whatsoever.”
Commissioners asked what they could do to avoid a qualified opinion in the future. Rasmussen said they could ask those special service districts to perform their own audits. Baird pointed out that an audit would be a significant expense for those smaller entities.
“It seems we’re in a catch-22 situation,” said Commission Chair Mary McGann. “The state’s saying [the special service districts] don’t need to be audited, but we’re getting dinged because they aren’t audited.”
CARES Act funding
At a previous meeting, the commission established a working group to allocate $529,834 of federal CARES Act funding through grants to political subdivisions and local businesses and nonprofits. County Treasurer Chris Kauffman said there were applications from seven political subdivisions and about 45 local businesses and nonprofits. Requests totaled over $2.5 million.
“There was a lot of need and just a little bit of funding. We did our best to spread that out,” said Kauffman. Other members of the working group agreed that the decision process had been difficult.
“It was very difficult, very hard to decide,” said McGann, who served in the working group. “There were lots of requests and a small amount of money.”
The group recommended that 80% of the funding go toward political subdivisions, because that was the original intent of the funding and private entities had other CARES Act grant opportunities. That portion was allotted among the Grand County School District, the Moab Valley Fire Department, Grand County EMS, the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District, the Solid Waste Special Service District, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, and the Castle Valley Fire Special Service District. 26 business applicants received the remaining funds, with each receiving $3,846.
Commissioners approved the allocations unanimously.
The Grand County Commission meets the first and third Tuesday of each month at 4 p.m. Meetings are streamed online at the Grand County Government Youtube channel. Agendas and instructions on public comment can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net/134/County-Council.
“There were lots of requests and a small amount of money.”
– Mary McGann