Without tax increase budget cuts would ‘debilitate’ Grand County services

Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan predicted “mass resignations” in Grand County government if a proposed property tax increase fails. Her comments were included in a narrative she and other elected officials and department heads drafted to answer the question: How would you balance your budget without a tax increase or draw from the general fund? Photo by Doug McMurdo

Grand County’s operating deficit sat at more than $1.7 million on Monday, the day Grand County Clerk-Auditor and Budget Officer Chris Baird sent out an email regarding a proposed property tax increase and narratives from department heads and elected officials that address how they would balance their respective budgets without a tax increase or a draw from the general fund balance.

It was a general fund draw of about $742,000 that put Grand County in the red after it approved nearly across-the-board pay raises in 2018 that went into effect this year.

The county also drew a total of $514,000 from transient room and tourism, recreation, cultural and convention tax revenue.

The Grand County Council on Dec. 3 will hold public hearings on the proposed property tax increase and could approve or reject its implementation later next month. The pay increases were not the only reason for the deficit. Other factors, said Baird in an email, include a 1.7 percent cost of living allowance increase that will cost about $152,000 between Grand County and the Grand County Library – which has its own deficit – $730,000 in additional funding to the sheriff’s budget, in part to fill two critical vacancies; $377,000 for the jail budget, in part to fill two critical vacancies; $141,000 in additional funding for the Old Spanish Trail Area; $74,000 for council Administration; $58,000 increase to Human Resources for an assistant HR position; $46,000 in additional funding for justice court; $30,000 for the airport after reclassifying the director’s position; $28,000 for Elections and a $100,000 contribution to the Moab Valley Fire Protection District.

The district requested $208,000 from the council earlier this fall, which would cover its cost to respond to incidents outside of the district and which Grand County is responsible for paying. Other funding included $380,000 for capital projects, $160,000 for capital debt and new spaces costs; and $150,000 for the General Plan update.

Not all elected officials or department heads has provided an account of what they would do to balance their budgets absent a tax increase – a task Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks requested – but among those who have is Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan.

Sloan in her narrative said she stabilized her department’s budget this year after average budget increases of more than 18 percent over the past four years, and that was after she hired a deputy county attorney.

She said that effort trimmed “all the fat” in her budget, which was primarily done through eliminating expensive contract attorneys to handle criminal and civil matters

She defended her staff, saying they “deserve to be appreciated for the value they provide to the county and the community and compensated accordingly.”

Sloan also said that while tax increases are unpopular, “they are essential to support a stable government. We have not seen tax increases in more than 12 years. Our taxes are lower than all of our surrounding sister counties,” and will remain lower with the increase.

She predicts massive resignations throughout Grand County would occur if the tax increase fails or if staffing or wages cut. That would be a bitter irony since the primary reason the county is in the red is due to those aforementioned wage and salary increases – which were approved in order to make Grand County competitive in the job market.

Here’s what others had to offer:

Treasurer

Grand County Treasurer Chris Kauffman said his only choice would be to cut compensation. His office would need to trim about $26,000, and to do that he would reduce his chief deputy’s hours to part-time. That would meet the budget needs, but Kauffmann said services would periodically be reduced and increases the likelihood of staff turnover.

Human Resources

Director Renee Baker would have to eliminate a little more than $23,000 from her budget, which she said would require her to drop a proposed assistant director down to part time. She noted in her narrative that the county is already understaffed and the failure of the tax hike could “debilitate” Grand County.

Maintenance

Facilities Supervisor Shawn Fugit would have to cut more than $66,500 from his budget. Any cuts, even one as low as $5,000, would leave “little room for repairs should any major problems occur.”

He said the only way he could make the cuts would be through eliminating a position, and that isn’t an option. He said his department is responsible for a dozen buildings and grounds and terminating a single employee would create a lot of coverage problems.

Library

Director Carrie Valdes didn’t use the term scorched earth to describe how she would balance the library’s budget, starting with the elimination of 10 part-time employees, including the Teen and Castle Valley librarians, close the library on Saturday and reduce the hours it’s open Monday through Friday.

And even then more cuts would be necessary. At least one full-time position would be eliminated and benefits and salary cuts for other full-timers would have to take place. She predicts mass resignations would occur, even eliminating the part-time positions would prove to be a “disastrous decision.”

The library, as a standalone entity with its own taxing district, would have to cut the entirety of its more than $210,000 operating deficit.

Administration

Ruth Dillon said in order to trim more than $37,000 from her budget she would have to cancel plans to hire an administrator in training, which would save about $35,000, but that could leave the county rudderless once Dillon resigns in the spring. It would also require a current part-timer who has been with the county for about a year to run the office.

Eliminating current positions are also potential remedies, but that would increase overtime costs and create a high stress environment. Plans to hire an assistant administrator who would split supervisory duties with the administrator could be scrapped or reduced.

Building Inspector

Bill Hulse said there were only two ways to meet the cuts: Decrease salaries or eliminate a position. He said the need for certified building inspectors is huge in Utah and across the country and most of them pay more than does Grand County, which would lead to an exodus.

The permit tech was let go Nov. 1, he said, and doing so has caused “extreme difficulty” in keeping up with office functions.

Clerk-Auditor

Baird said he would have to cut $7,000 from training, $2,000 from his inventory budget, and cut salaries by 20 percent – an amount that three of his five employees said would force them to seek employment elsewhere.

“Losing three-fifths of the clerk’s office staff would essentially cripple” the office, he said, not to mention hurt his ability to fill vacancies.

Sheriff and jail

Sheriff Steve White had not submitted his narrative by deadline. His department clearly provides a critical service to the county and his budget is by far the largest at more than $3.6 million, representing more than 22 percent of the county’s budget, as well as an additional $2.2 million for the jail, which is nearly 14 percent of the total budget.

White has critical vacancies to fill in both departments, as things stand now, he would have to cut more than $412,000 from the sheriff’s budget and another $255,200 for the jail.