The two main topics of discussion at the Grand County Council meeting April 30 were the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the county’s grim budget outlook.
County Administrator Chris Baird showed the council rough projections of revenue lost due to the coronavirus. He displayed a graph comparing the budget for 2020 as planned before the pandemic hit with the estimated revenue if the economy experiences a 50% recovery and the estimated revenue if the economy experiences no recovery. The shortfall between the budget as planned and the projected revenue is between $6 and 7 million. The loss of Transient Room Tax revenue is the most significant impact.
Baird said he is expecting about a 30% decrease in the county’s General Fund.
In one cost-saving measure, the county has already begun workforce reductions, taking advantage of federal stimulus unemployment expansions to furlough some county employees. Fourteen full-time and five part-time county workers have been furloughed through the end of July; others are working reduced hours, using Family Medical Leave Allowance, or taking emergency paid sick leave, which is paid at two-thirds of regular salary. Four of the full-time furloughed workers are from the Travel Council, three from Maintenance, two from the Spanish Trail Arena, one from the Treasurer’s office, one from the Clerk Auditor’s office, two from the Grand Center, and one from Justice Court; the part-time furloughed employees work for the Department of Active Transportation and Trails and the Council Administrator’s office. Baird said it may be possible to furlough more employees, but pointed out that if cutting workers’ hours results in a loss of revenue for the county, the move will be pointless. For example, he said, if employees are furloughed from the Building Inspector’s department and the county can’t process inspections, the county will lose those fee revenues. Other positions may be tied to grant funding allocated for those positions; it would not be in the county’s interest to lose that grant funding by laying off or furloughing those employees.
County Treasurer Chris Kauffman apprised the council of their potential options for borrowing, should the need arise. He said banks may offer a “tax anticipation note,” a short-term gap loan, usually for a year or less. There is also a section of state code that could allow for the county’s General Fund to borrow from another county fund. Kauffman also noted that in other widespread economic disasters, state and federal entities have, in the past, designed loan programs for local governments. Kauffman clarified, however, that he believes the council should consider borrowing only as a last resort.
“We’re staring down some pretty grim numbers here and I wanted to make sure that we have as many tools in our toolbox as possible so that we know what our options are,” he said, but added that “it is not a sustainable option to borrow to cover deficits in your budget that are going to be ongoing. I consider it as one of your more last resort options.”
Kauffman expressed hope that a future federal stimulus package might include grant funding for local governments. The idea has been discussed among members of Congress, and Kauffman encouraged council members to contact Utah members of Congress on the issue.
Councilmembers agreed that they don’t want to borrow unless they really have to.
“It’s low on our list of ways to move forward,” Councilember Evan Clapper said.
Looking ahead to the fall
Councilmember Curtis Wells opened a more broad discussion on the county’s economy and budget model, saying citizens have contacted him asking about the council’s plans for the future.
“There’s still a lot of questions out there on how Grand County, as an organization, views this circumstance, and what the mindset is in regards to advertising through the travel council moving forward,” Wells said.
All councilmembers expressed the belief that advertising would be an important component of revitalizing the tourism economy once the risk level associated with the coronavirus makes it safe to do so.
“What we were facing a year ago and what we’re facing now is so extremely different that I’m sure the entire council is going to look at advertising very differently than we were a year ago, when we were feeling overwhelmed by the amount of tourism,” said Council Chair Mary McGann, adding, “We really need to spend more time diversifying our economy as well—how can we not have all of our ducks in the same basket, how can we have it so that we have a more diverse economy so that if something goes wrong similar to this, in the future, we will at least have something else to fall back on.”
Baird reminded the council that the question of advertising will likely have to wait until the fall. He said that furloughing travel council employees now is a strategic move, so that the department will have money to work with in the fall when, hopefully, conditions related to the pandemic are more favorable to tourism.
“The ultimate brick wall is you run out of money, and then you just can’t do anything,” he said. “So it’s important to use our resources intelligently.”
Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff, MRH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dylan Cole, and Director of the Southeast Utah Health Department Bradon Bradford gave the council an update on responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Their presentation was similar to the one they brought to the City Council last week. Bradford discussed the parameters of the new health order issued by the SEUHD, and how it is affected by Governor Gary Herbert’s statewide action. During their third special session of 2020, the state legislature created the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which was tasked with designing parameters for reducing the risk status of the state. The SEUHD had already written a new public health order set to take effect at close to the same time as the state commission’s moderate, or orange, risk level plan. Per the legislation authorizing the commission, the SEUHD submitted their slightly more restrictive plan to the governor’s office, asking for approval. The SEUHD’s local plan was mostly approved, with some tweaks: the required rest period between guest stays in overnight lodgings was reduced from 72 hours to 24 hours, and the public is not required by law to wear masks in public places (though they are strongly encouraged to do so under the approved order.)
Bradford told the council that state leaders had assured him they would publish guidance on when and how to move between the risk levels, using metrics like the transmission rate, hospitalization and ICU utilization rates, and contact tracing availability. He also said that he is optimistic that while state leaders are guiding public health policy, they have been receptive to requests from local authorities to tailor measures to local needs.
“We’ll have the ability to really make an argument for local numbers. State numbers will have an impact on what’s going on but we’ll be able to make a reasoned argument about what’s happening locally,” Bradford said. The state order is in place through May 15, when it will be revisited.
Sadoff and Cole explained why the hospital is in support of a cautious re-opening of the local economy, citing heightened preparation measures and increased testing capacity. Cole and Sadoff also strongly caution the public to continue practicing social distancing, frequent hand washing, and to wear masks in public places. They emphasized that as more people visit town, the risk of transmission will increase, and people must be proportionally cautious to keep case numbers from surging and prevent the need to revert to more restrictive measures.
“If you’re wearing a face covering in public, you are pro ‘Moab opening,’ because you are trying to keep those transmission rates down,” said Sadoff.
Cole and Sadoff also mentioned the availability of antibody tests, but cautioned that results from those tests are not 100% reliable.
“The value of the antibody tests is really more of a public health value,” Cole explained, because having more information about how many people have already contracted and recovered from the virus will help researchers understand the virus and can help inform policy.
More importantly, Cole said, it is not known whether the presence of antibodies provides protection from re-infection.
“An antibody is the protein formed by the immune system in response to coming into contact with that infection,” Cole explained. “For many infections, those antibodies do help protect against future infection, but that’s not always or exclusively the case... there’s no scientific evidence to show that people who have positive antibodies have immunity.”
Clapper expressed some hesitation about the re-opening of the economy, but acknowledged that pressure from state leadership is guiding local policy.
“I do fear, like many, that we’re re-opening too quickly,” Clapper said.