Local officials have dodged the painful decision to implement extremely cautious regulations to guard against the spread of coronavirus in southeastern Utah.
Few could have believed a few months ago that such measures would be considered in our modern lives. But COVID-19 has shown us that Mother Nature is in charge. As Moab is poised to welcome thousands of people into our community, officials are worried they might bring the disease. Business owners are worried about their revenues. For now, worship of the almighty dollar is trumping formal cautionary measures. Under pressure by local businesses, the Grand County Council has not passed prohibitions on large gatherings of people. But folks are urged to use “social distancing” practices. (Who even heard of social distancing a few months ago?)
Moab’s privilege of being a global destination and stage reliant on tourism makes us more vulnerable than many small towns of our size to the economic and health handicaps that are sweeping through populated and popular places. It’s likely just a matter of time before coranavirus is here. Let’s hope its impacts will be minimal, and that we don’t end up like Italy.
Staffing challenges have hit our most visible governing bodies, as evidenced by recent retirements and resignations of some of our key public figures. It’s tough to hold a civic job in the public eye while navigating budget demands, stress and social issues. Given the nation’s low unemployment numbers and high housing costs, employees face challenges but have a lot of choices in the job market.
Moab doesn’t hold a corner on the housing cost issue. It’s a problem in any city or town that is a desirable place to live throughout our country. Moab and Grand County are making strides to develop more affordable housing, with several new projects on tap.
But the popularity of our venue, construction costs and our small percentage of private land will always create barriers to having enough available housing.
I like it when the market can help to guide solutions. Many employers are finding that they need to provide their own workforce housing if they want their jobs to be filled with competent people. Still, I support new construction codes that require developers to provide some employee housing, just as they should provide parking. Large-scale developments ideally should increase a community’s tax base, not drain it.
At City Hall, longtime recorder-come Finance Director Rachel Stenta announced her retirement. Budget woes under her watch, including big legal issues, couldn’t have made her job very fun the last while. Same is true at the county courthouse. Chris Baird, who has a deep understanding of our community’s myriad challenges and a firm grasp on the numbers, has transitioned from clerk-auditor to the job of council administrator. He’s ideal for the job, but leaves a hole in the clerk’s office. As a former council member and a public servant on various boards, he is well versed in the issues our county faces. He will be a steady hand as our change of government plays out, but I’ll miss Ruth Dillon, who has been a calm, positive and competent public figure amidst the storms.
In our judicial system, we have a new district court judge and a new justice court judge.
At the city, the list of transitions includes a new city attorney, planning director and completely new staff in that department, treasurer’s office, recorder, human resources director, police chief, public works director, sustainability director and wastewater reclamation facility director. Whew!
The school district is perhaps hardest hit with recent and upcoming vacancies. In January, longtime high school Principal Steve Hren announced his retirement at the close of the current school year. A month prior, Finance Director Robert Farnsworth stepped down. Then just a few weeks ago, Superintendent JT Stroder said he was throwing in the towel.
All the while, crews are busy building a new middle school, slated to open this fall. Middle school Principal Cari Caylor has been in her position for less than a year, filling the job after a short-lived stint of a principal who left about a year ago under shrouded circumstances.
If there is to be continuity that comes with institutional knowledge, it is with the school board’s recent hiring of longtime district administrator Taryn Kay. For decades she’s been in the trenches as an educator and later as principal of HMK.
As regards special service districts, the Moab Mosquito Abatement District has a new director, following a chaotic year that saw high water levels in the sloughs and the threat of West Nile Virus. Mosquitoes are already buzzing spring, and so are fears that residents will face another itchy summer.
On the federal level, at the National Park Service there is an interim leader following the retirement of Superintendent Kate Cannon. Kayci Cook Collins, a 36-year veteran of the NPS, has been appointed interim superintendent for the next several months until a formal superintendent is hired.
New blood is good, but there is something to be said for stability with permanence. Our community has never been more challenged by issues of growth, save for the uranium boom in the 1950s when classrooms were bursting at the seams and people lived in shanties. Economically over the last decade, untold millions of dollars have been spent on tourist venues and lodging, which hasn’t seemed to help county or city coffers. I hope the new blood in these many key positions will be beneficial to residents, our tax base, the quality of visitors’ experiences here, and to finding solutions to the many challenges Moab faces.