Baird lobbies for change
The Office of the Legislative Auditor General in a performance audit of several Utah counties’ use of tourism promotion funding determined that Grand County inappropriately spent Transient Room Tax money on a project at Canyonlands Field Airport that was completed in 2017.
Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan disagrees with the finding, which was released in April.
Sloan’s opinion, in fact, falls in line with those of her two most recent predecessors.
“Our use of TRT revenues for the airport is legal and justifiable under Utah law,” she told The Times-Independent in an interview. “And I am frustrated that the audit report concludes otherwise merely because airport uses are not specifically named in the TRT statute.”
The county in 2016 and 2017 used TRT funding to expand the runway and terminal, a use Sloan defends.
“The airport is clearly an important mechanism for promoting tourism [under state statutes] and it is an important recreation facility … given that it is used as a base for scenic tours, skydiving, hot air balloons, etc.,” she said.
Sloan also said the state audit does not constitute a legal opinion on the matter. She said for these reasons and more, she would “defend the county’s use of TRT revenues in 2016 and 2017 for the runway and terminal expansions, and I would continue to encourage the county to use TRT revenues for similar uses in the future.”
That position is one wholeheartedly supported by most elected officials and residents alike, and it was a question auditors made note of in their report to lawmakers.
Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird said auditors specifically asked him about the percentage of TRT revenue that must be used to promote tourism and whether it should be changed.
“My answer to that was yes,” said Baird, who told auditors he would like to see a more favorable percentage split between promoting tourism and mitigating its impacts. “The analogy I used was of a business that has customers lined up out the door, but the infrastructure is insufficient to handle them. Why spend money on more advertising? It’s a similar situation with us.”
Baird said he had no idea what lawmakers might decide next year, if anything, but he did indicate they might be receptive if for no other reason than most laws need to be revised from time to time.
“The [TRT spending] law was probably written before anyone had a mature tourism economy,” he said. “It was not really designed for mature tourism economies.”
Baird noted officials in other communities the state audited would also prefer to have more flexibility in how TRT revenue is spent. He said one possible new use would be to promote economic development in general, not just tourism, to diversify the economy. “If we could use some of that money to diversify, it would probably do a lot of good,” he said.
While state auditors questioned Grand County’s use of TRT funds at the airport, they noted that all eight counties they audited are now in compliance.
The law requires counties to spend at least 47% of TRT revenue on promoting tourism; a percentage auditors said officials in Grand and the seven other counties “reported a desire for the legislature to relax the requirement … to enable more spending on projects and mitigation, depending on county size.”
Auditors did not offer an opinion, saying only that changing the percentage or giving counties more flexibility is a decision best made by state lawmakers.