Tourism, congestion mitigation at Arches National Park, state Medicare expansion, public-lands issues, affordable housing and several other matters were discussed during a town hall meeting on Friday, Jan. 5, before a panel of local and state leaders, hosted by the League of Women Voters and Sees Moab (Citizens for Community Collaboration).
But perhaps the biggest story of the evening was the event’s attendance, which far exceeded organizers’ expectations and impressed panel members.
“This is amazing — and it’s a Friday night. Good job, Moab,” said moderator Mayor Emily Niehaus.
An estimated 300 people attended the town hall-style meeting. Based on the number of chairs set out to begin with, organizers planned for up to perhaps half that many. They were, however, ready with extra space and more chairs — and perhaps a loaves-and-fishes–style miracle of refreshments that didn’t run out.
Several panelists commented on the size of the crowd, and the fact that most of them stayed for the duration of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.
Panelists included Moab Police Chief Jim Winder, Moab City Council Member Rani Derasary, Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann, Grand County Council Vice Chair Curtis Wells, State Rep. Christine Watkins, State Rep. Carl Albrecht and State Sen. David Hinkins.
“It’s nice to see this kind of turnout at a town hall when it isn’t contentious,” McGann remarked.
Co-organizer Bill Topper was led to say, “We need a bigger venue,” possibly the high school auditorium, for the next town hall event.
A respectful but highly engaged audience heard responses to several questions from moderator Niehaus and several community members.
Perhaps the biggest topic of the night was the effect of tourism upon the community, both generally and specifically with the tremendous increase in visitors at Arches, where the NPS is trying to solve congestion problems.
“I have a solution for that: Stop advertising. Stop advertising,” declared resident Rick Fullam to the clear approval of a great many in the audience, referring to the city’s and state’s very successful marketing campaigns.
Ashley Korenblat agreed, at least to a point.
“If you let the marketing budget get too far ahead of the product budget, you have a problem,” she said. “It’s really time to change that formula. If you let the marketing budget run away with it, and all you do is put your money into marketing and you never reinvest, it’s a bad business decision.”
McGann sympathized, but also expressed another side of the tourism coin and said that tourism has contributed to an improved quality of life.
“It’s a real double-edged sword,” she said. “We have things in our county now that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for tourism.”
County Council Member Curtis Wells said, “To just say ‘stop advertising’ is a bit generalized.”
Wells would prefer more flexibility in how to use revenue from the transient room tax (TRT), known colloquially as the “tourism tax.”
“It’s a subsidy for tourism,” he said. “Is it time to tweak that model? Absolutely, on the mitigation side. Frankly, I think that it should be general fund money. We need to be able to put it where it needs to go.”
State legislators, particularly Hinkins, appeared sympathetic to the idea. Hinkins referred to a Utah Senate Bill, SB 36, that would modify how such local tax dollars could be used.
Regarding public lands, there was overwhelming support for statements by McGann that were pro-national monument and pro-Antiquities Act, which provides the mechanism for designating national monuments.
By comparison, response was lukewarm to State House District 70 Representative Albrecht’s plan to seek an exemption from the Antiquities Act. Albrecht, who represents roughly the southwestern quarter of Grand County, is sponsoring two resolutions to petition Congress for such an exemption. Senator Hinkins — representing public-lands hotspot San Juan County, as well as Grand County, in Senate District 27 — is the Utah Senate’s co-sponsor.
“I got to thinking a lot about the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears and what’s happened,” Albrecht said. “I got thinking, ‘How can we resolve these issues between one administration and another?’ … If we have something we want to protect, let’s work from the bottom up to protect it. Nobody with the stroke of a pen should be able to set aside 1.5 or 1.9 million acres.”
On health care and Medicaid expansion, most on the panel seemed to favor some form of Medicaid expansion, but not necessarily full expansion. The views of local leaders differed greatly with the state lawmakers on the panel. At the state level, there is an appetite for some expansion but with limitations, such as a five-year waiting period for legal, not illegal, immigrants to be able to access Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Watkins, who represents the bulk of Grand County, said, “The budget for our whole social services programs in the State of Utah is to the point of being bigger than our education [budget]. It’s a huge issue.
Asked by a resident how they would feel if they were completely without health coverage, none of them answered directly, though Albrecht offered, “It’s for anybody to be without health insurance, I agree with you on that part.”
McGann was ready to address the issue. She read from the Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” preamble, then connected it to the health-care debate.
“I believe health care is a right, not a privilege,” she said. “Without our health care, our life is impaired, and without our health care, our happiness is threatened.”
Derasary went further. “If it was up to me we’d all have universal health care.”
Winder put a practical, human face on the issue. Many of the calls police respond to — and it’s as true in Moab as it was in Salt Lake County where he served as sheriff, he said — end up dealing with people with no health care. Dealing with medical issues (he later indicated that substance addiction was in that category) on a law-enforcement/corrections level was done, he said, at five to ten times the cost as they could be dealt with if the individuals had proper health care.
He encouraged the state to get what the federal government was offering, in terms of Medicaid expansion.
“In my opinion these are some of the most important issues in the community today,” Winder said. “Our federal tax dollars need to be diverted back to our state to address the problems they were meant to address.”