County, travel council agree to collaborate on room tax issues
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Aug 31, 2017 | 845 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print

After briefly addressing the elephant in the room — looking at potential changes to Transient Room Tax (TRT) code — the Grand County Council and the Moab Area Travel Council (MATC) advisory board agreed earlier this month to work together as partners in the future, not adversaries.

During their first joint meeting Aug. 1, both bodies expressed interest in beginning a strategic planning process to better understand each other’s visions for the community.

MATC Executive Director Elaine Gizler called the Aug. 1 joint meeting “historic” for both the county council and advisory board.

“I think it’s going to make a difference,” Gizler said. “I think it’s wonderful that they expressed the desire to be on the same page … so we can all move forward.”

In June, tensions rose between some members of both bodies when former county council member Chris Baird suggested making changes to TRT funding allocations.

Under TRT, a 4.25-percent tax is levied on overnight rentals. According to state law, two-thirds of 3 percent of the tax must be used to establish and promote tourism, film and conventions, a major role of the Moab Area Travel Council.

Baird proposed to expand that section of state code to enable travel council expenditures on economic diversification, including business expansion, higher education capital facilities, small business resource development center staff and workforce training.

The other allocation of TRT revenue — one-third of that 3 percent, along with the remaining 1.25 percent of the tax monies — can fund county services that “mitigate the impacts of recreation, tourism or conventions.” State code currently lists solid waste disposal, emergency medical services, search and rescue and law enforcement as approved uses of those TRT revenues.

Baird also proposed to expand this mitigation list to include other public services “clearly impacted by tourism,” including affordable housing and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as traffic control and environmental and recreational damages.

Some representatives of the tourism industry — including travel council advisory board member Colin Fryer — categorized Baird’s proposal as a “war” on Moab’s primary economic driver.

“What this proposal is about is taking the advertising money from the travel council and using it for something else,” Fryer said in June.

But during the joint meeting Aug.1, county council member Mary McGann briefly broached the subject, questioning whether a mature tourist economy like Moab is adequately served by the current parameters of the TRT code.

“I think what we want to do is to have more flexibility in how we spend money on mitigation,” McGann said. “…There’s a lot of other places that need mitigation [where] in the code we can’t put it aside.”

But this discussion quickly derailed, with Fryer questioning whether Moab’s tourism economy is really “mature.” Others, like advisory board member Rachel Paxman suggested the county simply needs to “move their money around” to offset impacted services, not change state code.

“If you’re talking about changing the TRT law … I can tell you you’ll run into all kinds of objections starting with me,” Fryer said.

Although the TRT code conversation faded, Fryer did approach an issue that both entities indicated interest in working on — tax collection.

“If we want to start collecting the taxes, then I think that’s a part where we can all get together and work together,” Fryer said.

Ensuring that Grand County returns better collections from TRT, McGann told The Times-Independent, could be the starting place for a better working relationship between the county council and the travel council’s advisory board.

“I think we need to drop changing the [TRT] formula,” McGann said. “We need to work on where we agree. ... Maybe if we work together, maybe there could be improvement.”

In 2011, state legislation moved TRT collection responsibilities from local entities like MATC to the Utah State Tax Commission. Gizler estimates Grand County is losing out on some collections because of this change.

“There are uncollected TRT taxes out there,” Gizler said. “Even if it’s $50,000, it’s $50,000 more that could be put towards something else.”

Before the law was changed, administrative assistant Callie Tranter said the travel council’s collections rate was “extremely successful” because of their ability to directly — and locally — address any issues.

If people paid late, Tranter said, “I could do something about it. I could send out my letters, I could have the sheriff serve them with legal documents.”

Now, Tranter said, with the state tax commission acting as a middleman of sorts for the travel council on TRT collections, her data estimates the county could be losing some revenue. In Tranter’s opinion, returning to local TRT collection could improve the lag time now associated with the state collections, return penalty fee collection to the county, as well as remove the approximately $40,000 in administrative fees the state charges Grand County to collect the taxes.

“We need to work with the state tax commission and with our legislature in order to get [TRT collections] changed back to the way it was,” Tranter said. “…We have a pulse on the properties and how busy Moab is, how busy town is. The state tax commission doesn’t know.”

McGann said both bodies could work on a resolution asking for “more power back from the state to collect the TRT.” However, she noted that this is just “one idea” that the county council and the travel council advisory board could be working on together.

County council member Curtis Wells suggested that simply improving “basic communication” between Grand County and the advisory board could improve understanding and help both entities work on identified issues.

“What I’m hearing is this has to be a partnership,” Wells said. “…There’s a huge communication problem and the thought that ‘you guys handle your business, we’ll handle ours’ — that’s not effective because we’re partners. ... It’s just having that basic dialogue so we can reduce that friction going both ways.”

As representatives of the tourism industry, member Howard Trenholme said that the advisory board could offer perspective on its associated impacts on business owners and the community.

“We’ve got a great industry here — travel and tourism. However, there are a lot of impacts from this,” Trenholme said. “So as a board’s role, we’re directly involved in the hospitality industry. We know what problems are there.”

Although he has no “ultimate goal in mind” council member Patrick Trim suggested strategic planning meetings that could help the two entities identify shared goals and promote mutual understanding.

“I think there needs to be a more disciplined planning process between the travel council and the county to understand what our future goals are and what we’re going for. Because we could be working as a county on one thing that could be totally opposite of what the travel council wants to do,” Trim said. “… I think if we don’t talk and we don’t understand where your dollars are going and you don’t understand what we’re doing, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. ... I think if we have ongoing communications, and we continue to talk through it, I think we’re going to have more productive meetings.”

Dates for those meetings, according to Grand County representatives, are yet to be determined.

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