At their Jan. 17 meeting, Grand County commissioners and staff discussed with alarm a yet-to-be-drafted bill that might come up in the current state general session that would repeal hard-won reforms in transient room tax regulations.

TRT revenues make up a substantial portion of Grand County’s budget, and state statute has very specific rules on how the money can be spent, allocating a certain portion for tourism promotion activities and another portion for tourism mitigation. In 2021, Grand County successfully lobbied for more flexibility in TRT spending, and for a greater portion to be channeled toward tourism mitigation. Representative Carl Albrecht, who represented Grand County before redistricting took effect in the last election cycle, sponsored House Bill 247, which enacted several revisions to TRT spending rules.

Previously, 47% of TRT revenues had to be spent on promotion, and 53% was allocated to mitigation; after the 2021 reforms, the split changed to 37% and 63%, shifting ten percent to the mitigation category of spending. A new provision also allowed for TRT funds to be spent on economic diversification, a goal prioritized by Grand County. That section has a five year sunset clause, and will expire in 2026 if not renewed.

It might not have a chance to see that sunset, however. In a meeting with Grand County officials, state Representative Phil Lyman (R-District 69) said he plans to introduce a bill repealing those revisions.

County Strategic Director Chris Baird, who was instrumental in achieving the reforms that allowed for more flexible spending, said that if the spending split returns to its previous percentages, the county will likely have to resort to raising property taxes.

“That’s going to harm everybody in the county, liberal and conservative alike,” Baird said.

Promotion vs. mitigation

That ten percent shift amounts to about $830,000 this year, Baird said, which helps fund such essential services as the sheriff’s office and search and rescue. Contributions from that pool of money also go to the museum and to the Solid Waste Special Service District (Canyonlands Solid Waste Authority). Baird noted that Canyonlands Regional Airport is also eligible to receive TRT mitigation funds, and will need funding for expansions and for law enforcement staffing requirements on the horizon.

“It would be catastrophic, really, to the sheriff’s department if we had to make all those cuts from the sheriff’s department and search and rescue,” Baird said. “We wouldn’t be able to do anything about it this year except for make cuts and take money from savings to make up the shortfall.”

The county’s only choice, Baird said, would be “immediately launching into a property tax increase—which is tragic, in my mind.”

Transient room taxes are collected on short-term lodging rentals, so they’re essentially all paid by visitors to Grand County. Replacing TRT funds with property taxes in paying for essential services would shift the burden onto county residents.

Economic diversification

HB 247 also allows counties to use up to one third of the tourism promotion portion of TRT spending on economic diversification activities. This allowed Grand County’s Economic Development Department to design grant programs, including the STAR business grant and the MOAB! advertising grant, and to distribute funds to many local businesses. The county is also planning to develop a small business resource development center in partnership with Utah State University, but that plan depends on the economic diversification spending.

“That… center would be a casualty of the repeal,” Baird said.

Grand County leaders have long discussed ways to encourage the development of local industries other than tourism, to make the local economy more resilient and provide more opportunities for local youth to pursue careers within Grand County rather than moving away.

If the economic diversification provision were to be repealed, Baird said, Grand County would likely instead be required to spend those dollars on tourism promotion, potentially outside of the state.

Baird noted that even with the 2021 reforms in place, tourism promotion is still the largest part of the budget for the Economic Development Department.

Why repeal?

Baird said that while meeting with Grand County officials, Lyman indicated that his plan to push for the repeal of TRT reform was a punitive action: he felt that Grand County had been unduly involved in San Juan County politics and that nonprofit advocacy groups the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Rural Utah Project had infiltrated Grand County government.

“I’ve been involved with almost every aspect of county government going back 16 years and I’ve seen no evidence of that at all,” Baird said.

This past fall, former San Juan County Attorney Kendell Laws raised concerns that SUWA and the RUP were inappropriately influencing San Juan County government, citing emails between then-San Juan County commissioners Willie Greyeyes and Kenneth Maryboy and Colorado-based attorney Steve Boos. The concerns were enough for the state legislature to call for an audit of both San Juan and Grand counties.

Baird said he spoke with Jesse Martinson, the manager for the legislative audit, to ask if any evidence has been found so far that Grand County was influenced by SUWA or RUP, or was influencing San Juan County politics—Martinson told Baird no evidence has been found. The audit is expected to last several more months.

Moving forward

Commission Chair Jacques Hadler applauded Lyman for meeting with Grand County officials and listening to their concerns, even if ultimately the parties did not reach an agreement.

“I respectfully asked him to just drop the bill,” said Commissioner Mary McGann, who was present at the meeting, but Lyman was not willing to do so.

Commissioner Bill Winfield said the circumstance serves as a reminder that public perception of official conduct is important.

“This speaks to the fact that we’re given the duty and responsibility up here as professionals—and the perception, even if it’s incorrect, is something that we need to be aware of and watch for,” Winfield said. “We’ve got a responsibility for our district and for our citizens.”

Winfiled also cautioned that Grand County should demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with state legislators.

“Grand County has, in the past, occasionally sent a signal to the state that they don’t like what they’re doing up there,” Winfield said. “I would far rather suggest that we sit down with the state… I really think continuing to work with Phil [Lyman] and with Mr. Albrecht on a one-on-one basis would have far more value.”

Albrecht declined to comment on the possible reversal of the bill he sponsored in 2021; Lyman could not be reached for comment before press time. 

Others agreed that the county’s approach should be respectful and as collaborative as possible, but also pointed out that the county has to act in its own interest and that the repeal of the TRT reforms would have significant negative consequences for everyone in the county.

“Legislation such as this will hurt every single one of us,” said Commissioner Trisha Hedin. “We need to look deep inside the impacts of this… it’s gonna affect you, it’s gonna affect me—I’m going to pay more taxes; I’m not going to have the security that I currently have with the sheriff’s department.”

Commissioners voted 6-1 to take a formal stance in opposition to the proposal to repeal TRT reform, with Commissioner Mike McCurdy opposed. McCurdy was hesitant to adopt too adversarial a stance.

“I want to show that openness to work together,” McCurdy said.