During the regular meeting of the Grand County Commission, Special Service Districts that provide critical needs for county residents each made requests for funding from a limited pool of money as the economic fallout from COVID-19 impacts the bottom line of local government.
The County Commission heard presentations from the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District, the Emergency Medical Services Special Service District, the Grand County School District, the Recreation Special Service District, the Solid Waste Management Special Service District and the Transportation Special Service District.
Each agency was requesting funding for its 2021 budgets, and all of them described negative impacts from the coronavirus pandemic.
Canyonlands Health Care and Grand County EMS had a respectful but tense dispute last year over the allocation of Rural Health Care tax funds. Historically, the two agencies had shared those funds in a 65%/35% split, with Canyonlands Healthcare receiving the larger portion.
Last year, after much heartfelt debate, the split was re-allocated to 60%/40%, with the Health Care District still receiving a higher share.
Joette Langianese, chair of the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District, asked that the 60/40 split be maintained for 2021; Elizabeth Tubbs, chair of the EMS Special Service District, requested that the split be revised to a 50/50 allocation between the two agencies, or that the county distribute funds from other sources to the EMS district in an amount that would equal 50% of the Rural Health Care sales tax.
Though the two agencies’ requests are in conflict, representatives from both emphasized that they work together closely and deeply support each other.
“Liz was the last person I had lunch with before COVID hit, and one of the first people I talked to afterward, about a month into it, because we both recognized that this was going to be a challenging year,” Langianese said of Tubbs.
“We didn’t want to compete, to be honest, and that’s the position we’ve been put in. We don’t want this to be controversial between these two entities. We work together, and we want to continue to work together in a positive way,” she said.
Both agencies highlighted ongoing expenses and need amid decreased revenues because of COVID-19 impacts.
Langianese said that, assuming that sales taxes come in at less than 2019 figures, the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District will be in the red for 2021 no matter what. How deep in the red depends on allocations from the county and their ability to defer debt service payments. The healthcare district foresees being at least $124,000 “in the hole.”
The EMS budget for 2021 will be about $1.1 million in the red without additional allocations from the county, Tubbs said.
Taryn Kay, superintendent for the Grand County School District, said schools have also been deeply impacted by COVID, adding that she doesn’t envy the commission’s tough budgeting decisions this year. She emphasized the importance of preschool care and services in breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The school district provides these services for free to children from low-income families.
Kay requested that the commission allocate 50% of PILT, or “payment in lieu of taxes,” funding to the school district. PILT monies are distributed to jurisdictions in proportion to the amount of federal land in their boundaries to make up for lost property taxes.
Jim Lewis, the vice-chair of the Recreation Special Service District, requested the same percentage of mineral lease, mineral lease rent and royalty, and PILT funding that they received in 2020 to help pay for maintenance and repairs at the Old Spanish Trail Arena, along with other operational costs and debt payments. Lewis said the Recreation District’s 2020 budget was $438,000, but they had received only $57,000 so far.
“Mineral lease funding through rent and royalties and PILT money has been almost nothing; it’s not even a quarter of what we normally expect,” he said. “We know that we’re going to run a deficit this year.”
Evan Tyrrell is the manager of the Solid Waste Special Service District. He emphasized that waste management is a critical service and that demand for the service has not flagged, even though revenues have dropped. The Solid Waste District is asking for $600,000 for 2021 to help cover revenue losses, rebuild reserves, and continue with future improvements and operations. Ashley Wareham, chair of the Transportation Special Service District, asked for funding to support the delayed Jackson Street Detention stormwater management project, as well as future storm drain and road repair projects.
Decisions on funding allocations will be made at a future meeting.
Planning along Highway 191
In a joint workshop before the regular meeting, the County Commission met with the Planning Commission to discuss guidance for future development along Highway 191 north of Moab, to be completed by the end of the year. Planners are gradually distilling the community’s vision for the area through a survey open to the public and a series of joint workshops with the County Commission.
The workshop included a critique of an overall vision statement drafted by the planning commission based on public input and previous discussion. The statement prioritizes the “preservation of the natural beauty and ecological quality of the gateway to Moab, allowing only minimal development that will not impede the scenic value of the area.”
Commissioner Greg Halladay pointed out that the statement appears to overlook existing development within the small area planning boundaries.
“We’re not talking about a pristine area that’s never been touched,” Halladay said, mentioning the Dinosaur Museum, the railroad, the gas station, RV parks and dispersed camping that already exist within the planning area. “This has been touched with elephant feet... somehow we need to address what is there.”
Planning Commission Chair Emily Campbell noted that the statement “is intended to be used as guidance for future development.”
“It definitely is a balance and we’re going to have to make incremental steps towards where we want to be,” she said, adding that “communities are organic, they change over time.”
Workshop participants also discussed potential changes to the area’s zoning. County Commissioners expressed support for keeping residential uses in the area’s “Resort Special Zone” restricted to single-family homes and low density. Most commissioners felt the area is not very compatible with housing.
Commissioner Jaylyn Hawks noted that residential communities would have to commute to town for necessities, increasing traffic congestion. Commissioner Curtis Wells agreed that proximity to Highway 191 makes the area more suited to commercial uses.
Commissioner Halladay pointed out that getting water to homes in the area poses a challenge. Commissioners supported allowing for limited housing options, but declined to expand possibilities for more types and higher densities of housing.
All commissioners agreed they did not want to allow for hotels, motels, or full-home overnight rental units within the planning area, but they did want to allow for RV parks and campgrounds.
County commissioners also expressed support for the Planning Commission’s suggestion of a “scenic resource protection overlay” which would be applied to the small area plan parcels and could potentially be applied to other places in the county. It would impose a set of viewshed protection standards in areas with high scenic values.
The Grand County Commission 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