Tensions erupt over TRT talks

Tensions over tourism, its revenues and its impacts, came to a head at a July 19 special meeting of the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board, which was held to discuss Utah’s state code governing transient room tax and strategies to deal with public concerns. The meeting drew to a startling close when Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler left the council chambers following an unflattering comparison made by a board member.

Gizler has frequently emphasized that Utah state code sets a minimum amount that counties must spend on tourism advertising. However, as overcrowding in Moab and nearby national parks heightens, many members of the public are taking issue with the state mandate to use TRT revenues for publicity. As the board deliberated last week on public negativity toward the Travel Council’s advertising efforts, Vice Chair Sarah Sidwell said, “I really hate it when somebody from this board says, ‘we’re just doing our job,’ because you know what, the Nazis were too.”

Feeling personally attacked, Gizler stood from her seat and responded, “I am offended that I and my staff and my office would be equated to Nazis… when I say we’re just doing our jobs we are following the law.” Sidwell immediately took back her comment and profusely apologized. But Gizler walked out of the meeting, which was adjourned shortly thereafter. Sidwell clarified her meaning by saying, “Yes, I really hate it when we all say that we’re just doing our job. I’ve said it, and I always feel bad when I say that because these people that you’re talking about…they’re just trying to help make it better…One of the reasons that I sit on this board… is I feel like I can make a positive impact on the community, even through tourism, even though what I just said did not make any kind of a positive impact at all.”

Sidwell made her controversial remark immediately after Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks shared the comments of an unnamed concerned citizen about pushback against the Travel Council. “I believe that the vitriolic comments to or about those individuals are indicative of the extreme frustrations citizens feel when they are disregarded, told that madness must persist, because people are just doing their jobs and that they are in effect powerless to affect a change, however small, that is so desperately needed. The Travel Council is a lightning rod for public angst because their mission, as currently interpreted, is antithetical to the community’s well-being,” Hawks read from a letter.

According to Gizler, much of the negative feedback about the amount of advertising stems from a lack of knowledge about Utah state tax code. Rules allow county legislative bodies to impose a transient room tax not exceeding 4.25 percent. Grand County collects the maximum amount of TRT allowed. In Title 17, Chapter 31 section two, the state code sets rules for how TRT revenue can be spent. Out of the first three percent collected, at least two-thirds must be allocated for “establishing and promoting recreation, tourism, film production, and conventions.” The remaining third can be combined with additional TRT revenues more than three percent – in Grand County’s case 1.25 percent – to fund a variety of community services that fall into three categories.

The first use of TRT money is “acquiring, leasing, constructing, furnishing, maintaining, or operating” community resources like museums, visitor information centers and sports facilities. The second use is “acquiring land, leasing land, or making payments for construction or infrastructure improvements” related to the facilities covered by the first category. The last possible usage of TRT money only applies to smaller counties, such as Grand, and it involves paying for tourism mitigation efforts. Tourism mitigation can mean funding solid waste disposal, emergency medical services, search and rescue, law enforcement and road repairs.

According to Gizler, in 2017, Grand County used TRT money to allocate approximately $1.9 million for law enforcement activities, $400,000 to solid waste disposal, $229,000 to search and rescue, $100,000 for the airport facility and $76,050 to the Museum of Moab. Another financial benefit the county gets from tourism is the Tourism, Recreation, Cultural and Convention tax. In Grand County, the TRCC tax is implemented on restaurants and vehicle rentals such as cars, jeeps and ATVs. In 2017, the county collected $735,686 through TRCC taxes, which went to the airport, Old Spanish Trail Arena, the Grand Center, fireworks, the Thompson Fire Department, and trail development.

As Gizler has repeatedly pointed out, the Travel Council follows the state tax code to the letter. However, the council’s advisory board realizes that fact does not alter the reality of the tourism impacts residents are complaining about. Recent public concerns pushed the board to hold a special meeting. “The principle reason we’re having this meeting is for the board to really get to grips with what we’re supposed to be doing in regards to the state code,” said Howard Trenholme, board chair. The board debated whether to concentrate on efforts to change the state law or to devise a way to adjust their practices to put more TRT money toward mitigation and less toward advertising while still operating under the state’s legal constraints.

The week prior to the meeting, Gizler met with the presumed new county clerk, Chris Baird, about ways to work the budget that could free up money for the county to spend on things such as affordable housing. “Rather than changing the state code, if I can take funds [from the advertising budget] to pay for the museum and search and rescue that would free up about $300,000… and that could go to the county to be put aside for affordable housing,” said Gizler. However, Trenholme argued such a scheme would be “illegal” under the current law. Hawks added, “It would be an accounting trick…that would free up general funding.”

Trenholme supports efforts to change the state code: “I’m a firm believer that we need to start a discussion to change the law.” He suggested implementing a threshold level that could adjust the minimum amount to be spent on advertising. If TRT revenues were to surpass a certain amount, then less money could be put toward marketing. Such a move could be risky, but if visitation numbers were to plummet, then more money could be put back into advertising. “We could be a big part of the solution financially. We’re not the mechanism to create the housing…I just want us to be part of the support to make our community a better place,” Trenholme said.

Another idea proposed by Trenholme is an attempt to convince federal land management agencies, namely the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, to collect TRT on their campsite fees. He argued that because county agencies such as the Sheriff’s office and search and rescue respond to calls on federal land then federal agencies should contribute to the county’s budget.

Recognizing that changing state law can be a long, slow process, Trenholme advocated for a slight reinterpretation of the state code in the meantime. Where the law says TRT funds can be spent on community facilities, the last type it lists is “related facilities” that are somehow connected to tourism. That broad designation could be interpreted to mean employee housing, says Trenholme. He said he will speak with the state auditor in August to discuss the possibility of using TRT money to fund affordable housing projects.

While the meeting reached an emotional climax, tensions were high throughout. The meeting began with two citizens to be heard. One Moab resident, Judy Powers, expressed her concerns about the amount of advertising and how it brings visitors who often know very little about the area. Trenholme acknowledged her points were valid, but he responded that her complaints should be directed at the Utah Legislature rather than the Travel Council. “We have to spend what the law requires us to do on marketing… if you looked at the state statutes concerning us, you’d probably say, ‘Wow, they’re really doing their job.’ Now, you might not like the job description, but that’s the state law,” said Trenholme. He continued, “The county could use 4.25 percent [on advertising] … they choose the minimum legally required amount to spend on marketing and promotion.”

In response to comments about visitors mistreating the land and natural resources, Gizler referred to educational films the Travel Council recently produced. One film, created in conjunction with three local tour companies, teaches visitors how to ride respectfully on the trails. Another video, made with the help of the Moab Police Department, covers the legal use of UTVs and ATVs in the city. Furthermore, the Travel Council is currently working with various agencies, including the park service, BLM and search and rescue, to create a pamphlet on responsible outdoor recreation. The pamphlet will share information about how to donate to search and rescue. “As a Travel Council, we’re doing our part to educate the public,” Gizler said.

ByBy Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent