Projections obliterated; $5m remains unallocated, unrestricted
Those funds will be restricted to replacing revenue the county lost because of the pandemic and paying for costs it took on because of it. However, because the county had previously budgeted to cover some of those costs and losses itself, a portion of the federal money will be effectively fungible.What does Grand County do when $8.4 million falls into its lap? For 5.4 million of those dollars, it remains undecided, and no members of the public have formally weighed in on how to invest the giant gain.
Grand County Commission Administrator Chris Baird, who is also the county’s chief budget officer, said at the opening of a public hearing Tuesday, July 6 that Grand County residents rarely weigh in during county budget talks.
The amendments Baird proposed Tuesday have so far been no exception. This is despite the 24% total increase to the county’s budget representing a multimillion-dollar public investment opportunity.
Due to a communication error, Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann considered suspending the county’s public hearing rules to pass a budget amendment Tuesday reflecting the increased revenues, which would have kept the $5.4 million in the county’s bank account for future consideration.
Baird clarified that he didn’t believe suspending the rules was necessary. He also implied that comment during an extended public hearing period was unlikely.
“We almost never get any comments on the budget,” Baird said.
“[It is] the most important thing we do,” McGann replied, laughing at the irony.
“Waiting will give me the opportunity to just review it a little closer to make sure I didn’t screw anything up,” Baird said.
The county’s budget has been bolstered primarily thanks to increased visitation. New hotels have opened, and the surge of visitation into Moab that began mid-pandemic has not abated, which has meant more sales tax revenue for the county government.
However, the effects of the city and county lodging moratoria from 2019 are set to take hold soon. Lodgings that were approved prior to the moratoria are and have been reaching completion; new construction after that is set to slow, which could also mean a leveling off of the county budget growth.
The 2019 rules mean that overnight accommodations that come down the pike from here are likely to be smaller and fewer in between. Both the city and county have drastically reduced the zones where hotels and campgrounds are allowed, and they have limited the size they can be when constructed.
Grand takes revenue from multiple sources. Sales taxes are the largest sources of its revenue with property taxes next in line, but the county also receives money from the state and federal government. To varying extents, all of the money is restricted in how it can be used.
The $5.4 million that the county is currently planning to send to its general fund balance surplus — money that it will keep in its bank account for now — is the least restricted of these funds.
That money can go toward hiring new staff, making county staff wages more competitive, building or repairing county infrastructure, directly aiding impoverished families, expanding county services, bolstering marketing, or anything else the county wants to spend on.
Where exactly is all the money coming from? The county’s transient room tax, which it charges on stays at hotels and private campgrounds, is projected to increase 36% over previous estimates. The county’s general sales and use tax is projected to increase 45% over previous estimates.
Some of the budget increase is also the result of less spending. The county tightened its belt mid-pandemic by furloughing and releasing some staffers, but it continued to tighten its belt after, as well.
After a win in the state legislature this year on reforming the transient room tax, the county is now able to spend less on tourism marketing and more on economic development.
Grand also projects it will receive $1.9 million from the federal government thanks to the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Those funds will be restricted to replacing revenue the county lost because of the pandemic and paying for costs it took on because of it. However, because the county had previously budgeted to cover some of those costs and losses itself, a portion of the federal money will be effectively fungible.