Council members Bob Greenberg, Jim Lewis, and Audrey Graham voted for the increase. Gene Ciarus, Jerry McNeely, and Joette Langianese voted against. Pat Holyoak was absent.
Greenberg and Lewis co-sponsored the proposal, with Greenberg calling it the most extensively debated topic the current council has addressed. He said the concerns of both the lodging industry and the public have been well-voiced, but pointed out that 69 percent of respondents to a poll on The Times-Independent website favored the increase.
“I would like to remind you... that sometime in October the chickens will come home to roost on what we decided were essential services for Grand County and funded out of our reserves,” Greenberg said. “We can’t continue to support what we decided were critical county functions out of our savings, so I would encourage the council to be at least prudent.”
Lewis said he understands that the lodging industry fears travel will drop off because of gasoline prices. He expressed admiration for the work of the Moab Area Travel Council and the money tourism brings to the county. But Lewis also spoke of the impacts of tourism on county services and the ability to cover costs of them.
After raising the specter of “sticker shock” from the recent property tax notices, Lewis talked of the dilemma facing the tourist industry – raise property taxes more or raise more money from tourists.
“I wish it could be zero,” he said. “But a slight increase on these visitors I see as a positive way to distribute that taxation because we still have the need [for more revenue].” The uranium industry paid a large amount of money in taxes when it dominated the economy, Graham said, adding that the county is still stuck with paying for the impact of that industry. “The mess that was left over,” Graham said.
Graham said she does not believe such a small increase in room costs, averaging 69 cents per night, would hurt tourism and that the increase would be the responsible thing to do. She added that she is working to find a way to influence the state to allow TRT funds to help cover airport costs. The airport is now funded from the county’s general fund, but its benefits are realized mostly by visitors, she said.
McNeely said the council must listen to the lodging industry. He said he expects Greenberg to not listen but Lewis “should know better.” A TRT increase would take money away from the lodging industry, McNeely said, adding that he fears the next step would be for the state to come in and get a share. “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said.
Langianese said the lodging industry is not totally against the tax increase. The problem is how the additional money will be used, she said. The council should listen to the travel council and lodging association because its members know the business and they adamantly oppose the increase, Langianese said. “We’ve taxed our county to death,” she said.
Noting the increase could take some of the burden off the property tax, Langianese said if tourism drops, which could easily happen, the money will have to come from somewhere. “The timing is not good, not this year,” she said.
Council chairman Ciarus said that tourism is too volatile to be a reliable source of funding for county services and the burden on the county does not come from people who stay in motels. “It’s the ones who go out and camp,” he said, adding, “I really have a hard time with this.”