$500K in federal coronavirus money used to build tubing hill in Utah’s Uintah County

Business owners say they need help in one of Utah’s most economically impacted counties.

(Photo courtesy Uintah County) The Uintah County Commission has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal CARES pandemic relief money to build the Buckskin Hills tubing hill, including $19,999 each for six snow guns, that opened Jan. 15, 2021.

Uintah County opened its brand new Buckskin Hills snow hill this month, complete with snowmakers, snow guns, a tow rope, and more than a dozen runs for tubing, skiing and snowboarding.

The price tag for the Vernal-based attraction could be half a million dollars or more, and it all came from federal dollars meant for the pandemic response. That has some struggling business owners and county residents raising eyebrows.

“A lot of people are just livid about the fact it’s taxpayer funds being spent on an entertainment activity that can only be utilized for three months of the year,” said Amy Farnsworth, a teacher who also runs a tutoring business. “In my opinion, the funds should go back to the state so other businesses in need can use them.”

When Congress passed the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act last spring, it directed the State of Utah to funnel funds and provide oversight of spending in most of the state’s counties due to their population size. Uintah County received $5.1 million. Most of that money, about $3.6 million, went to two rounds of economic recovery grants for local businesses according to a public records request. Another $114,000 went to two local artists to paint murals.

But some business owners say they were left behind.

“I had to sell my house just to make this all work. This COVID grant would’ve been a godsend to me,” said Darryl Andersen, owner of Wet and Wild Rentals, who said he was twice denied an economic recovery grant for his event rental business.

Meeting federal deadlines and guidelines

Local governments faced a Dec. 31 deadline to spend all their CARES money before Congress extended that deadline at the last minute on Dec. 21. Former President Donald Trump waited to sign the extension into law until Dec. 27.

Faced with that uncertainty, the Uintah County Commissioners said they had to find creative ways to spend their remaining funds or risk losing them.

“We either spend it or it goes back to Salt Lake and they will spend it,” Commissioner Bart Haslem told the Uintah Basin Standard, who first reported on CARES funds spent on the snow hill on Jan. 7.

As the Dec. 31 deadline loomed, Duncan Evans with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget said 15 counties were scrambling to spend $1.1 million in CARES money. He confirmed that if any of the counties were unable to use those dollars, the governor’s office would have used them to pay for state-incurred pandemic costs.

“We didn’t want to send anything back to the federal government, but it was our preference that cities and counties use it for urgent needs in public health and economic recovery,” Evans said. “The money from the federal government was very helpful, but their approach of having a hard deadline put everyone in a tough situation.”

He declined to comment on whether Uintah County’s use of CARES funds to build a snow hill was an appropriate pandemic expense.

“In our mind, the purpose of the money was to use it on the most urgent economic needs,” Evans said.

In an interview, Haslem said the expense was justified under CARES because it allowed county residents to enjoy recreation while social distancing. The county expanded the Buckskin Hills parking lot so people could watch bike races safely from their cars in the summer as well.

“The idea was to spread people out and give them something to do outside,” Haslem said.

Commissioner Brad Horrocks said the county spent about $534,000 in CARES money on Buckskin Hills and the Uintah Basin Standard reported just under $500,000, but responses from the clerk/auditor to an open-records request from The Salt Lake Tribune showed the county has spent about $322,000 to date. More snow hill expenses may be coming, however, since the county still has $500,000 CARES dollars left to spend and it was making purchases for Buckskin Hills as recently as last week.

The snow hill is immensely popular in the community, Horrocks said, clocking 10,000 downhill rides in just three weekends and drawing visitors from neighboring Wyoming and Colorado.

“That’s one of the best things we’ve ever done out here in Uintah County,” Horrocks said. “We’ve had such a great response from it, we’ve got to extend our hours.”

Asked whether the county would have constructed the snow hill if it didn’t have surplus CARES money, Haslem responded that the hill was already built before the pandemic hit.

“Would we have expanded it to the point that we are? Not all in one year, no,” Haslem said.

Guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department notes that CARES money can “only” be used for necessary expenses caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency that were not accounted for in local government budgets before the pandemic began. While the guidance is both broad and vague, it does include a long list of examples, such as costs from quarantining sick people, paying grants to impacted businesses, setting up telework equipment for employees, ramping up testing and caring for homeless populations.

The most recent guidance doesn’t say anything about building new recreation venues. It does note that capital improvement projects that provide an economic development benefit to a community are, “in general,” not allowed.

And the snow hill isn’t the only questionable entertainment or recreation expense. Uintah County also spent $44,700 on wrestling mats, $5,000 on a tournament for the Vernal Wrestling Club, $25,000 on a Dinosaur Roundup Rodeo sponsorship and more than $4,000 on bike tracks, all using CARES money.

The state auditor’s office confirmed they have received complaints about Uintah County’s spending on Buckskin Hills, but declined to comment on any “existing or potential audits.”

Business grants and rejections

The Uinta Basin took one of the state’s hardest economic hits during the pandemic. As travel and road traffic ground to a halt, so did the area’s oil and gas industry. Unemployment in Uintah County is hovering around 10% compared to 3.6% in Utah and 6.7% nationwide.

The county received 580 applications for economic recovery grants. Of those, 70 were denied, although about 25 of those businesses did receive money in either the first or second round of grants, but not both.

The main reason applicants were denied was because they didn’t prove they made less income during the pandemic compared to the year before, according to Sylvia Wilkins, the county’s economic development director.

“They also had to have a current business license,” Wilkins said. “But the main thing most were rejected for is based on loss in revenue.”

Wilkins added that about 72% of the county’s CARES funds went to small businesses.

“We have not heard of any other community in the state being able to use their funding to support their economy in this manner,” she said.

Andersen, however, said some businesses fell through the cracks. He supplies things like chairs, tables and tents for events like weddings and Halloween carnivals.

He said he invested all of his profit into new equipment for his rental company at the start of 2020. Then the pandemic hit, and business slowed to a halt.

“To say that we haven’t been impacted or hurt, my business in itself is one of the main businesses that has been affected. We’re an event rental company, duh,” Andersen said.

Doug Dunn, owner of Ridgeline Motorsports, said he was also denied a grant because his business did better during the pandemic than the prior year.

“The only thing we can figure out is people were getting stimulus money and forced to stay home,” Dunn said.

Those bored residents sought outdoor recreation, which drove up sales for Dunn’s motocross bikes and ATVs.

“The problem was, we were operating on the inventory we had stocked up,” he said.

Global supply chains remain choked up due to the pandemic, which means Dunn is now facing a difficult year since he can’t replenish his stock of products to sell. He’s particularly frustrated because some of his competitors in the county received economic recovery grants.

He added that he supports expanded recreation opportunities in Uintah County.

“I’m just opposed to using pandemic funds to do it,” Dunn said. “That’s like Dad giving me money for a car and I spend it on beer.”

‘Fishy’ spending

Some county residents are especially miffed that family members of the county commissioners, who approved CARES funds for the tubing hill, received grants. Commissioner Haslem’s son received $20,000 for his aviation business and Haslem’s wife received $20,000 for her travel business. Horrocks’ sons received a total of $77,000 for their RV, farm, energy and hunting outfitter businesses.

“To boot, in [a] meeting they said that they gave to everyone they possibly could, which is a lie,” Andersen said. “So they decided to spend the pandemic money on this snow hill instead.”

Both commissioners said they played no role in their family members receiving CARES funds.

“These are brick-and-mortar businesses that pay taxes and they qualified,” Haslem said. “Find me two forms of businesses affected more than travel. ... Nobody’s drilling, nobody’s building anything, nobody’s flying into this airport.”

Horrocks said he made sure to recuse himself from any economic recovery grant request that came from his family.

“I stepped out of the room,” he said. “Never looked at their applications, never seen their applications, never sat through any of their meetings about it.”

The commission is also facing criticism for paying $19,999 each for the most pricey items on the ski hill — six snow guns and a snowcat — exactly one dollar below the threshold that would have required the commission to solicit bids.

“It’s very, very fishy. That’s my opinion,” said former commissioner Duane Shepherd, adding that he believed the six snow guns should have counted together as a single $120,000 purchase.

“They skirted the state purchasing rules, in my opinion,” Shepherd said.

Haslem said he did solicit bids by calling three different snow gun companies. He went with Colorado-based TechnoAlpin USA because they came in with the lowest offer.

“This one was under 20 grand, so we went with them,” Haslem said.

The county paid the snow gun company on Dec. 17. If the county needed to spend $20,000 or more, Haslem said, “We would have to advertise it for two weeks, get a sealed bid and open it in a commission meeting.”

He added that the county hired local companies to lay pipe, wire and deliver supplies to construct the snow hill, further moving CARES money into the local economy.

“We used every local contractor we could find,” Haslem said. “Believe me, these guys would rather work for the money than get it for free anyway.”

View the county’s CARES spending as of Jan. 21 below, or download a spreadsheet to review and explore the data. Buckskin Hills expenses are highlighted in yellow.