Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Rural Counties Plan To Lobby Lawmakers For More Say In How To Spend Tourism Tax Dollars

A group of around 10 people gather under a red rock arch.
Ken Lund
Creative Commons
A crowd gathers under Sand Dune Arch in Arches National Park. Over 1.5 million people visited the park in 2019.

Grand County only has around 10,000 full time residents, according to County Administrator Chris Baird, but around 3 million people visit there each year. And the county has to take care of all those visitors — policing and rescuing them and paying for the wear and tear they cause to infrastructure.

In order to do that, the county levies a 4.25% tax on hotel rooms called the transient room tax. They have to spend at least 47% of that money on tourism promotion, which leaves around 53% for mitigating tourism effects.

Last year, that number came out to around $3 million in Grand County. This year it’s shaping up to be around $1.2 million. And that’s not enough to meet demand, according to Baird.

“We constantly are getting requests for more law enforcement, more code enforcement, more traffic mitigation, and we can only budget according to the resources we have,” he said.

Baird wants state lawmakers to increase the percentage of hotel room tax revenue that can be used on mitigation, and he’s not alone. A number of counties in southern Utah are lobbying for changes to the law that governs how the tax revenue can be spent. Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said he’s planning to run legislation to help them.

“Rural Utah has been overrun by people from the Wasatch Front and surrounding states due to COVID,” Albrecht said. “Everybody bought a trailer and Razor, it seems.”

Albrecht ran legislation to reform the transient room tax spending formula last year, but ended up making concessions to the tourism lobby. This year, Baird said Grand County is planning to spend $50,000 on a lobbyist to push for a different outcome, but that still has to be approved as part of the county’s 2021 budget.

In addition to Grand County, officials from Wayne, Emery and Garfield counties all want to see changes in the way the money can be spent.

Dennis Blackburn, a commissioner from Wayne County, said he wants to see the percentage that can be spent on mitigation increased, along with the tax counties can levy.

Wayne is home to part of Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon Recreation Area and Capitol Reef. And while it only has 2,700 residents, Blackburn said it draws around 1.5 million visitors a year — and that results in a huge amount of stress on their emergency services, roads and landfill.

He said the search and rescue team alone has responded to 55 calls this year.

“Search and Rescue is completely volunteer,” he said. “They’re going on a trip every week. We really need to come up with a way to compensate them a little bit.”

Emery County Commissioner Kent Wilson said he wants to see more flexibility in how counties can spend transient room tax dollars for a different reason.

Emery, where the town of Green River is located, doesn’t see a ton of visitation right now, but Wilson said he would rather spend the tax dollars reserved for promotion on developing tourism-related infrastructure, like trails and signage.

“It’s like going to a poor restaurant, you go in and get bad food, and you never want to go back,” he said. “I want to improve the experience here before I advertise it.”

Wilson said he’d also like to be able to use the transient room tax money on economic development, in order to help new businesses get started. Right now, he said, there’s so little lodging in his county that tourists visiting destinations like the San Rafael Swell often end up staying in Carbon County, to the north.

“Along the Wasatch Front they’ve been giving incentives to businesses for 20 years,” he said. “In rural Utah we’re just starting to do that. We need to get educated on how we can support our businesses.”

Baird agrees. He said he’d like it if Grand County could spend some of the transient room tax dollars on economic diversification, in addition to promoting tourism.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.