The Times-Independent asked Mayor Emily Niehaus to answer questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. With all government meetings being held electronically, the public has been largely unable to interact with their elected officials.
Here’s what she had to say on an array of related topics:
The Times-Independent: With Moab at least partially reopening, how concerned are you that there will be community spread of COVID-19?
Mayor Niehaus: I don’t think I’ve had a good night’s sleep since March 17 — the day that the Southeast Utah Health Department published their directive to end events and close lodging and camping. Almost two months later, I am told by both the health department and Moab Regional Hospital that it is time to slowly reopen. Am I concerned about the spread? Yes. Do I think we are now ready to deal with it? Absolutely.
I have been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic. My position is that I support the recommendations of the health department and the hospital, I will do what I can to advocate for our community to get the resources we need, and I will support staff in crafting policy that supports this position.
The Times-Independent: Has there been any discussion on when the Moab City Council might resume meeting at City Hall? If so, what is the temperature of the room? Good idea? Bad idea?
Niehaus: We are following the Governor’s Utah Leads Together plan. Right now, maximum group size is 20. We are still in the “moderate risk” or “Orange” phase. City Hall will reopen when we move from Orange to Yellow, or when Arches and Canyonlands reopen. For a deeper understanding of how recreation is defined in the Utah Leads Together plan, readers can visit: coronavirus.utah.gov/recreation/.
The Times-Independent: The pandemic has resulted in job losses not seen since the Great Depression, including more than 500 in Grand County. The city has already furloughed a number of employees. It seems likely more might be coming. Is this an accurate assessment?
Niehaus: Agencies are still gathering and analyzing data from the loss of revenue for March-May. For a city that makes the majority of our revenue in the peak spring and fall months, a loss of revenue for three months is really more like a loss of half of a year’s annual revenue. The PPP, unemployment insurance, and state grants through GOED have provided a good number of businesses in Moab the ability to pay employees during the closure. These funds have provided temporary relief. But the real fear is our loss of revenue that typically gets us all out of the winter and into the spring season. Moab businesses that rely on tourism are deeply hurting, and I am up at night worrying that employees are going to feel that pain after the PPP wears off.
We need our state and federal legislators to know how uniquely devastating this pandemic has been to the Moab economy so that they will continue to fight for us after the rest of the state is back to work.
The Times-Independent: On the subject of loss, the City of Moab stands to lose at least 45 or so days’ worth of transient room and sales taxes — more than $1 million at the very least — and that’s a best-case scenario. Are there funds available to local governments and if so, what are they and has the city applied?
Niehaus: Not yet. There is a pot of federal money that has been awarded to Utah through the CARES Act. There are three pools. $203 million goes to Salt Lake County, $111 million goes to Utah County, and the remaining $246 million is in state control and goes to everybody else. Counties and cities are negotiating now through the Utah Association of Counties (UAC) and the Utah League of Cities and Towns (ULCT) about how to spend this money. I’m on the ULCT board and have been fiercely advocating for us. Stay tuned.
The way I see it, the city has three main critical deliverables to this community during a pandemic: deliver clean water, manage waste (sewer and garbage), and provide for public safety through law enforcement. Moab is one of the only cities in the country that does not charge a property tax. The property tax we pay goes 100% to the county. We at the city rely solely on sales tax and fees. This has been a sobering realization for me. It is unacceptable that we do not have a stable source of revenue to support our police and public works departments, and I intend to work with the city council and staff to remedy this. We have an awesome new finance director, Klint York, on board to lead us through some tough conversations ahead.
The Times-Independent: You’ve been a voice of strength and inspiration since the city shut down. Assuming this pandemic has challenged you more than any other issue you have faced as Moab’s mayor, tell us what you’ve learned about yourself and the response of key city employees, as well as the rank and file.
Niehaus: Thanks for the vote of confidence. I think consistency and collaboration has been key. Moab rallied early. The city, the county, the health department, the hospital, and law enforcement all came together and decided on a course of action. Most other cities and counties in Utah did not have that kind of collaboration. We share a valley, so the leadership here shared a plan.
As for City Hall, our new city manager, Joel Linares, has been incredible. I really cannot say enough positive things about him. Bret Edge, our chief of police, continues to remain calm, focused, and works collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies in our region. We lost our public works director before the pandemic hit, but our superintendents, Levi Jones (water) and Obe Tejada (sewer) have been outstanding in leading their teams to deliver the service we all expect as citizens. Marcy Mason has been keeping the treasurer’s office running smoothly and working with people to make their water/sewer/garbage payments. Everyone at City Hall has stepped up. I am so proud of Moab City (insert heart emoticon!).
The Times-Independent: What’s your message to the community moving forward?
Niehaus: To the moms and dads and extended family members taking on the job of schooling from home — you are doing a great job. Most of us didn’t have the resume or the time to take on this second job, but here we are relearning things like fractions and the eight parts of speech. Enjoy this time as much as you can. Bake cookies and watch movies without guilt. This too shall pass.
To the citizens — do not be afraid to ask for help. This pandemic is bringing out the best in our community. Resources are available to help with food, household goods, rent and utilities.
To the business relying on tourism either directly or indirectly — there is nothing that has prepared us for what we are going through. Your local, state and federal governments are trying to create policies and programs to stabilize business right now. While it feels good (I know, I’ve done it too) to blame and criticize your elected officials, right now you need to be laser-focused on telling your story and identifying your needs to get through this pandemic. We are here to help, but we can only respond to what is in front of us. Join the Chamber of Commerce. Join the newly formed Downtown Main Street Alliance. Apply for the PPP and GOED loan programs if you haven’t already. Tell your story so we can fight for you.