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Facing $70 Million In Infrastructure Costs, Moab Mayor Mulls Placing A Property Tax On Residents

Photo of a sign welcoming people to the city of Moab.
Creative Commons
Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus says the city needs additional funds to pay for infrastructure improvements that a recent study determined will cost about $74 million.

Most of Moab’s sewer and water lines were built more than 60 years ago, at the height of the uranium boom. Now, the town of around 5,000 residents is seeing a boom in tourism. On weekends, its population can reach up to 40,000, according to City Manager Joel Linares. This puts pressure on its infrastructure, and makes it more expensive to replace. 

“For any one resident, multiply it by four or five, and that’s what we have to build our capacity to support,” said Mayor Emily Niehaus. 

Moab recently did a study to determine the cost of replacing its rotting water and sewer lines, which have already begun to break, according to City Engineer Chuck Williams. The cost to replace those comes to around $29 million. Adding in road work and improvements to city facilities brings the amount Moab needs to update and maintain its infrastructure to around $74 million. Williams said the city is in the process of prioritizing its needs, and will be done with that process by the beginning of 2020. 

Moab is one of just a few cities in Utah that does not collect property taxes from its citizens, according to Niehaus. The city runs off money generated from sales tax, much of which is paid by tourists. And, as a qualifying “resort community,” Moab is able to charge a higher sales tax than other municipalities. Niehaus says Moab is grateful for the tourism dollars, but they don’t go far enough. 

“Moab residents are feeling tense,” she said. “We have to share so much with our visitors, and sometimes when you don’t have a lot and you’re asked to share, you get bitter.”

Implementing a “modest” property tax would only bring in about half a million dollars a year, but it would also allow Moab to borrow money and go after matching grants, Niehaus said, and those loans could be paid back with revenue from sales taxes. Funding from the state legislature and state agencies are other options Niehaus said she’s looking into. 

“The first step is completing a needs assessment, which we’ve done,” she said. "The next is tying our infrastructure needs to existing resources, and the state has lots of different pockets we can dig into.”

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.
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