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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Government leaders in Uintah County are defending the decision to use coronavirus relief funding to build a snow tubing and skiing hill near Vernal.

Buckskin Hills Ski and Snow Tubing Hill opened earlier this month thanks to about $500,000 allocated to the project by the Uintah County Commissioners from federal funds designed to help communities cover expenses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Local business owners and residents are upset about the decision.

Commissioner Bart Haslem said the project was justified because it helps people get outside for recreation while social distancing. The money also helped expand the parking lot so residents can come to watch bike races held at the location in the summer at a social distance from their cars, he said.

Funds not spent by the county by end of 2020 would have gone back to the state, said Duncan Evans of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Evans declined to say if Uintah County’s decision to use the fund for the snow hill was appropriate. But he said it was the state’s preference that counties and cities used the money for urgent needs in their communities rather than giving it back.

“The money from the federal government was very helpful. But their approach of having a hard deadline put everyone in a tough situation,” Evans said.

Of the $5.1 million Uintah County received, $3.6 million went to two rounds of economic recovery grants for local businesses while another $114,000 was given to two local artists to paint murals, according to public records obtained by the Tribune.

Among the residents angry about the move is Darryl Andersen, the owner of Wet and Wild Rentals that rents equipment such as water sports gear and bounce houses for parties and events. He said he was twice denied an economic recovery grant.

“I had to sell my house just to make this all work,” Andersen said. “This COVID grant would’ve been a godsend to me.”

Amy Farnsworth, a teacher who also runs a tutoring business. said the funds should have gone back to the state for businesses that really needed them.

“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,” Farnsworth said.

Exactly how much has and will be given to the snow hill is unclear.

Commissioner Brad Horrocks said the county spent about $534,000 in federal relief funds. But public records from the county provided to the Tribune show the county has spent about $322,000 to date. More could be spent because as of last week the county still had $500,000 in the federal relief funds to spend, the Tribune reported.

Horrocks said the hill has been a hit, with the site reporting 10,000 downhill rides in the first three weekends with locals and visitors from Wyoming enjoying the slopes.

“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.”

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