The upcoming budget season will not be easy for Grand County officials to navigate as the Grand County Budget Advisory Board begins its work for the 2020 fiscal year about $1 million in debt.
Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird, who chairs the board, said a variety of budgets will get cut and he believes the Grand County Council might have to consider the first general operations property tax increase since 2006 if efforts to change the formula on how transient room taxes can be spent fail.
It’s too early to say just how bad things could be or what steps will be taken, but what is known is that the budget board will meet in three-hour blocks every Thursday through Nov. 7.
Other elected officials, department heads and other key employees will participate. In addition to Baird, Grand County Treasurer Chris Kauffman, Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper, Council Member Jaylyn Hawks, Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler, and citizen at large and Vice Chair Zach Wojcieszek serve on the board, which has one vacant seat.
Baird addressed the issues the county faces in an interview with The Times-Independent.
T-I: You’ve made it plain Grand County faces a tough budget year, due in large part to $1.2 million that was used to augment employee wages and salaries last year in an effort to retain current employees and be competitive in recruitment. How do we make up for that loss?
Baird: The first effort in balancing the budget will be to cut expenses where we can. And, this may include contributions to other entities. The council continues to lobby for legislative changes to the transient room tax (TRT) that would enable us to use more of that revenue for necessary county operations. In the absence of TRT reform, the council may have to consider the first general operations property tax increase since 2006.
T-I: There have been reports tourism is down over last year. At what point will we know what impact that has on TRT revenue?
Baird: All forms of sales and use taxes are up. So, our economy is still growing, albeit at a slower rate than we’ve experienced in the past several years. I don’t think tourism is down. As new hotels, restaurants, and other tourism related businesses open up they take their own share of the market from their competitors. So, it may appear to some that tourism is down. However, as sales and use taxes are still growing, I would say that tourism is still on the rise.
T-I: There are a number of entities that depend on Grand County for funding. Are they going to be happy or sad by the time the budget is finalized?
Baird: As we may have to cut contributions to other entities, they will likely be sad.
T-I: What is the biggest challenge facing Grand County from a financial perspective?
Baird: Grand County faces similar issues as many private businesses. We struggle with retention and recruitment of employees, and with coming up with the funds to maintain competitive salaries. The lack of affordable housing severely limits the pool of applicants we have for many positions.
We are short on space to expand operations and so most of our future staffing needs are on hold until we find space for them. In addition, we have a long list of storm water mitigation projects and little available funding to complete them.
T-I: Where do you think the most contention will come from as the budget board moves forward over the next few months?
Baird: Cutting expenses, especially to other entities, is often contentious. Transient room tax reform will be contentious, both locally and up state. And, failing any significant reform to the TRT, a property tax increase will undoubtedly be contentious.