County Administrator Chris Baird gave a brief update on the county’s finances at the Grand County Council meeting on Aug. 4, commending county departments for successfully cutting their budgets down by 20 to 25%.
“All in all I would say that our budget cuts are going reasonably well,” Baird said, adding, “We’re going to have to keep them up because obviously we’re going to still be down a tremendous amount of revenue.”
Baird compared current revenue and funds to last year’s figures. With just under 60% of the budget year has elapsed, the General Fund is at 65% of the total year-to-date budget, Baird said. He noted that Emergency Management spending, which covers all COVID-19 related spending, is at 154% of the year-to-date budget. Baird said that the county hopes that much of those costs will be reimbursed by federal emergency stimulus packages.
In January of 2020, the county actually collected 112% of the revenues they received during the same month of 2019. By February of this year, however, the effects of the pandemic were already noticeable. Grand County’s revenues for that month were 85% of the same month of 2019. The worst month was April, during which county revenues were only 27% of the previous year’s April revenues.
Since then, revenues have improved and Baird projects recoveries up to nearly 90% of last year’s revenues by the end of 2020. He noted that transient room taxes would be the most deeply impacted, followed by car rental and restaurant sales taxes. Other sales taxes, he said, are largely supported by residents and do not depend on tourism.
“It appears to me like the economy is steadily recovering,” said Baird, barring another outbreak of COVID-19 and resulting shut-downs.
Data shows that visitation in Arches National Park for the week of July 28 to Aug. 3 was 74% of the volume for the same week in 2019.
Baird also noted that most county employees who had been furloughed had recently returned to work, as federal extended unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. He said the furloughs did help with reducing the budget. A hiring freeze is also currently in place at the county.
County gets a voice in December lease sale
The Utah Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale scheduled for September includes over 80,000 acres in the Moab area. After concerns were raised about the sale within the community, council members requested to be included in the environmental assessment process as a cooperating agency. The council’s request was made too late to be approved for the September sale, but Councilmember Evan Clapper made sure to get ahead of the game for the next quarterly sale, which will take place in December.
There is no opportunity for a standing agreement for Grand County to be an ongoing cooperating agency; the council must apply separately for that status for each quarter that they want to be included.
The December sale includes only one parcel in Grand County. The parcel, located near Cisco, is surrounded by parcels that already host active oil and gas development activities. However, Clapper thinks it is prudent to make a habit of being involved early on in the process of BLM oil and gas lease sale parcel assessments.
County Attorney Christina Sloan clarified that the BLM is not obligated to do what the county asks, but that the county is legally given a “presumption of expertise” on the expected economic impacts of oil and gas development on areas within the county.
“Ultimately, they get to do what they want,” Sloan said of the BLM.
Clapper had drafted a memorandum of understanding to establish Grand County as a cooperating agency for the next lease sale. The council approved the letter 5-1, with Councilmember Rory Paxman in opposition and Councilmember Curtis Wells absent.
Bike skills park still raising dust
Several citizens called into the Zoom council meeting during the “Citizens to be Heard” session to discuss ongoing concerns about the Robin Groff Memorial Bike Skills Park, planned for the Millcreek Parkway near 100 East.
Sara Melnicoff, founder of nonprofits Friends of the Parkway and Moab Solutions, has been vocally opposed to the location of the park since she first learned of it. She reiterated concerns about the area selected for the park and asked the council to consider moving the plan to Anonymous Park, an existing bike-jump park on 500 West.
If relocation is not deemed possible, Melnicoff asked that the council at least delay the park’s construction.
“I’m begging you, begging you with everything I have in my heart and soul, to put a pause button on this. Let us have an expert re-design the grading plan to preserve as much of the natural elements as possible,” she said.
Melnicoff also admonished community members for comments that, in her view, advocated building the park to displace Moab’s homeless population from the area.
“We need to help the homeless move forward, not just use them as an excuse to build something,” Melnicoff said.
Moab resident Jennifer Wenzel also called in to express her opposition to the bike park, though for different reasons.
“I’m concerned about spending money right now,” Wenzel told the council. She cited the deep economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including furloughed county and city staff and community services that have been curtailed.
“I’d like to see us focus on what we already have in place for infrastructure, and get that stuff squared away and buttoned up before we go ahead and start saying, ‘let’s add a bathroom, let’s add a park,’” Wenzel said.
Moab resident Kendra Kurihara called in to add her opposition.
“What is our vision for the parkway?” she asked the council. “I would love to be part of any process that would bring more community input and visioning, say, in the form of a committee, to support the parkway and do some fundraising and do some restoration, so we can have a unified vision for what the purpose of that land is.”
Groundbreaking on the project is scheduled to begin this month.
The Grand County Council meets every first and third Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. Meeting agendas, schedules and instructions on how to participate can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net/134/County-Council