As the Grand County Council moves towards creating a budget in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, the prospect of deep cuts and a lean future led to a brief conversation about how deep payroll cuts at the Council will go and what services must continue to be funded at all costs.
The discussion at the May 19 Grand County Council meeting was begun by Councilmember Curtis Wells, who reported that his constituents were asking for more details on how the County was going to “reduce the burden on the taxpayers” specifically in cuts to councilmembers’ own salaries and further cuts to the county’s payroll obligations.
“I know that this might make some people uncomfortable,” said Wells, “but it’s important to look at where we could reduce compensation, not just furloughs and layoffs.”
County Personnel Services Director Renee Baker reported that 24 employees were furloughed through July, including 17 full-time workers. Wells recommended looking for permanent cuts.
Wells acknowledged that the issue of staff and official compensation had been widely politicized in recent years, but noted that with the suffering of local businesses in mind considering cuts “is the right thing to do.”
“A lot of my constituents tend to be business owners,” said Wells, “and this is a conversation that they want us to have, not just out of politics.”
Council salaries cannot be adjusted without having a public hearing, as the salaries are embedded in a plan for altering the county’s form of government that is headed for the ballot in November. Council members could, however, voluntarily forgo or reduce their own salaries. Wells advocated for council members to show solidarity with local businesses and individually reduce their salaries.
County Administrator Chris Baird noted that local government and local businesses are inextricably connected.
“This drop in economic activity will have a direct effect on our revenue, which will have a direct effect on our budgeting. If the private sector contracts, the government should. And there’s really no choice about that,” Baird said.
“It’s going to happen naturally and we’ve already made a lot of big cuts, we’re not ignoring the situation,” he said.
While all officials and staff were in agreement that the radical loss of revenue stemming from a reduction in tourism and some business closures would require deep cuts, some expressed caution at cutting County jobs or compensation quickly.
“In terms of adopting a philosophy of causing the least amount of harm to individuals, we should be creative in making these budget cuts,” said Baird. “Causing harm to people should come last, should be one of the last options that we take. If we did cause harm to people’s livelihoods it should be because we had to, not because we were being punitive.”
Baird did accept the likelihood that staff cuts would have to be made eventually.
“We’ve just got to balance the budget somewhere. If it has to be with salary cuts, then that’s just what we’re going to have to do,” said Baird.
“The furloughs and the hiring freeze has already saved us a lot of money,” noted Councilmember Evan Clapper. Clapper expressed hope that the local economy would rebound and said he would like to wait “before making piecemeal decisions” outside of a formal budgeting process.
Essential services must be protected
However, Baird noted that there are some areas within county government that need to be prioritized above other considerations
“Grand County is not just in the tourism business. A lot of the services government provides are necessary regardless of whether tourism is running or not,” he said.
Baird said that as the council heads into the formal budgeting process, placing essential services like public safety and road maintenance first in line for funds would be crucial to ensure a functioning county government.
“It doesn’t matter if tourism grinds to a halt, we still have responsibilities and obligations,” Baird said.
Baird noted that beyond those obligations, “we are going to have to make some really severe cuts. It could get to the point where we can’t make those cuts without compensation changes.”
Council asks for stimulus funding, urges slow National Park opening
In dealing with the regional impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Council also approved letters reaching out to U.S. Representative John Curtis and U.S. Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney. The letters request the legislators’ help getting federal stimulus funding for the Moab area, outlining the economic crisis many tourism-based “gateway communities” are in.
While Utah was awarded funds from the federal CARES stimulus package, the funding is allocated to the state’s counties based on population. This leaves areas like Moab, which have a small year-round population but which support millions of tourists, in a gap.
“Visitation by both US residents and international visitors has driven the creation of
a vibrant tourism-based economy,” the letter explains. “In Grand County, it is the primary source of economic activity and revenue for both City and County government.”
The Council’s letter spells out the impact of reduced tourism in the area on local governments. Even if the local economy recovers to 50% visitation by the fall, Grand County is projected to lose around $4 to 5 million dollars in a best-case scenario.
“This loss cannot be made up through additional workforce reductions or property tax increases given our limited resources and small population base,” the letter says.
With this dire picture painted, the letter urges legislators to advocate for special funding for Moab and similar communities.
“Unless the next round of federal stimulus funding provides gateway communities with assistance that may be used to meet payroll obligations and maintain infrastructure, we will be left without sufficient general funds to operate essential statutory services,” the letter states.
County services that are impacted by tourism but funded by residents include law enforcement, utilities, road maintenance, waste collection and the support of the state’s busiest search and rescue department.
With an eye on these stressors, the Council also signed on to a letter reaffirming Grand County’s support for slowed, phased reopening of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, which is planned for May 29. The opening of the popular local parks will bring an influx of visitors from around the country, “including many from states with high numbers of COVID-19
cases,” the Council’s letter noted.
The Grand County Council meets every first and third Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. Meetings are livestreamed on the Grand County Youtube channel. Public comments are currently being taken by phone at the beginning of the meeting and again at 6 p.m. Instructions on how to join the Zoom meeting for public comment can be found on meeting agendas posted at www.grandcountyutah.net/AgendaCenter