At the council’s regular meeting Tuesday, Aug. 6, council member Elizabeth Tubbs decided against making a motion to put the question about the tax on the November ballot, saying “it isn’t legal to do so.”
Tubbs explained during the meeting that there are two sections of the Utah State Code that make Grand County currently unable to legally implement such a tax. The first has to do with the ownership of the care center itself. Grand County does not own Canyonlands Care Center, although it did create the entity that does own the facility, the Canyonlands Healthcare Special Service District. However, the current law, as written, allows only county-owned facilities to impose a rural health care sales tax.
The second issue involves Grand County’s status as a fifth-class county, as defined by the state. Currently, only sixth-class counties (those with populations under 4,000 people) are authorized to impose such a tax, according to the state code.
Grand County officials have already petitioned the Utah Association of Counties for formal support in getting these two issues changed by technical amendments to the state code, which would need to be enacted by the Utah Legislature.
However, because the Utah State Legislature won’t convene until next January, Grand County officials had considered asking voters to authorize the county to impose a sales and use tax – exempting food – of up to 1 percent, effective May 1, 2014, with the proviso “if authorized by Utah law.”
But Tubbs said she and other county officials had doubts about the legality of putting such a request on the ballot. In a study session last week, council members had expressed reservations about “putting the cart before the horse” by asking for a tax increase without first clearing the legal hurdles involved.
“It would be void,” Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald said during this week’s meeting as he explained why the proposed ballot question would not have passed muster with state election laws, which he said are “very strict and very specific.”
“The parameters under which the county can help the care center are very narrow,” Fitzgerald said.
Grand County Clerk Diana Carroll also told the council the proposed ballot measure would not meet state law.
“It’s not allowed,” Carroll said. “There’s no place that allows for that in the law.”
Tubbs called the news disappointing.
“I know this is a disappointment for a lot of people,” Tubbs said during the meeting. “I’m not willing to circumvent the law.”
“It was the one option that was most likely to bring the care center into the black,” said Tubbs of the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase. “It looks like we’ll have to go back to the drawing board for other options.”
Although the proposed increase would have exempted food purchases it still could have brought in between $1 million and $2 million annually, according to estimates.
Fellow council member Lynn Jackson also expressed disappointment in the turn of events and said he wondered whether the care center could even make it to November of 2014, which now appears to be the earliest date that a health care sales tax could be voted on, let alone implemented, provided that the legislative obstacles are removed and Grand County voters approve the tax.
Health Care Special Service District chairwoman Joey Allred and district board member Kirstin Peterson also addressed the council during Tuesday’s meeting, expressing their disappointment and seeking clarification on the council’s decision to not put the issue on the November 2013 ballot. Both Allred and Peterson are also members of the county’s healthcare task force, which has been exploring options to help the Canyonlands Care Center, which has been losing between $40,000 and $50,000 per month, according to officials.
During a county council meeting last month, Allred had outlined several cost-saving measures that the care center has either already implemented or is looking at addressing. One example Allred cited was the high cost of purchasing meals from the adjacent Moab Regional Hospital. The arrangement is subject to federal regulations related to the reimbursement requirements involved, she said. Allred said care center officials have looked into the possibility of having meals cooked and delivered by another county facility, such as the jail, but the feasibility of such an option appears to be low, due to concerns related to transportation of the meals, along with the differentiated dietary requirements of care center patients.
Roy Barraclough, administrator of the care center, did not address the council Tuesday but afterward said that the center would save a great deal of money if it didn’t have to buy its meals from the hospital. However, it would take around $700,000 for the care center to build its own kitchen, he said.
At least one private entity – Rocky Mountain Care – has expressed interest in purchasing the Canyonlands Care Center. However, the center’s approximately $4.5 million in outstanding bond debt remains a likely stumbling block, officials have said.