Recently, the council voted 4-3 to continue its consideration of raising the tax, even though a broad section of the tourist-related business community has repeatedly urged the council to drop the idea. The county is now embarking on an effort to meet with a committee of industry representatives to more fully hash out the pros and cons of a tax hike.
The transient room tax is an additional levy on lodging fees charged to tourists here and throughout Utah. When a tourist is quoted a room rate at a local hotel or resort, that quote generally does not include the additional taxes, which can make a night’s stay considerably more costly than our visitors might expect. Moab lodging representatives rightly argue that an increase at this time may only serve to alienate people from visiting Moab. It may make the price of lodging in Moab cost-prohibitive. Further, the pursuit of the proposed tax increase is ill-timed, during an era of soaring fuel costs that must also be borne by the traveling public.
Another unsavory aspect of the proposed tax lies with the county’s intended use for the additional revenues. County officials have roughly earmarked the funding for things that our visitors may only indirectly use. That type of funding allocation, which does not put TRT money back into amenities that directly benefit our visitors, smacks of taking unfair advantage of those who visit Moab.
Recent proposals for use of the money include funding for jail and office remodels, the county attorney’s office, the public defender, the recreation department and the solid waste district. Those departments most generally serve the residential base of Grand County, not the visitors. Should the county decide to approve an increase in the TRT, they should rethink its use, and funnel the money to something that might help increase visitor traffic here, such as a convention center.
The ability for governments to increase the TRT initially started on the Wasatch Front, and has since trickled southward as other cities and counties have wanted to fund projects by increasing the tax on tourists. The first use of the increase was for Salt Lake City to help fund the construction of the Salt Palace expansion. St. George officials took note of that tactic, and asked the legislature to allow other local governments to be able to do the same. As a result, St. George now has a new convention center, built with funding from the TRT increase.
As much as many local business people and government officials may want Moab to be like St. George and Salt Lake City in terms of tourism, we simply are not doing that volume of business here. A legislative mechanism that has been used to fund convention-related super-structures in larger burgs should not be misused to help Grand County balance its general fund and cover the costs of day-to-day functions such as the jail and solid waste.
“The county should live within its budget,” one member of the public told the county council at a recent hearing. We couldn’t agree more. The county should forego implementing an increase of the TRT tax. The economic tide needs to move back into positive territory, and local officials need to know with more certainty that tourism is not moving toward significant decline before any increase occurs. Furthermore, if and when a TRT hike happens, it needs to be used for those projects that will most directly benefit our visitors.