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January 04, 2013 8:28 am

EDITORIAL: Challenges ahead

Written by Tessa Schweigert

New local government leaders face tough decisions

Leaders elected in November have started taking office, and many will step into their new roles this month.

For leaders at every level of government — from Powell to Cheyenne to Washington, D.C. — new terms will be filled with a variety of budget headaches and difficult decisions.

A new mayor will be at the helm to steer Powell through the next four years. Mayor-elect Don Hillman, who officially takes office Monday, Jan. 7, will draw on years of experience as a city councilman.

Along with newly-elected Councilman Josh Shorb, who is coming back to the council in Hillman’s Ward 3 seat, returning councilmen and city staff must grapple with the city’s budget, specifically the deficit at the Powell Aquatic Center.

An independent audit gave the city a clean bill of financial health for the 2011-12 fiscal year. However, the auditor also highlighted the aquatic center’s deficit in his report to the City Council in October. The city’s cash position at the end of the year in the general fund was $1.34 million, down $308,000 from the previous year.

“We had a deficit of $312,000 in the aquatic center, and that’s roughly what the cash decline for the year was,” said James Seckman, the certified public accountant who did the audit.

Hillman and others have expressed concern about the aquatic center’s continuing deficit. The city staff has closely tracked the aquatic center’s expenses so city leaders can come up with a plan to cut that deficit, because the city can’t keep losing more than $300,000 a year, Hillman said last fall.

The aquatic center is an asset to this community, and it’s one Park County voters chose. Going on three years of operating experience, city leaders must now figure out how to keep the facility afloat financially.

As the city begins its budgeting process in coming months, everything must be on the table as the leaders consider possible cuts.

Just like Powell, municipal leaders in Cody and Meeteetse also must take a hard look at their budgets. Over the past year, many city and county leaders voiced support for a 1-cent sales tax for infrastructure to help local budgets, but voters rejected that measure in November.

Leading up to the election, leaders cautioned that, without the tax revenue, residents may see changes to the services they’ve long enjoyed. The coming year will determine how local governments make ends meet without that additional revenue stream.

We understand that cuts have been made already in the city’s budget, and projects postponed for years. We also recognize that falling energy revenues have forced the state to seek budget cuts, which makes state funding uncertain for counties and municipalities in future years.

New and returning elected officials have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. Voters trusted them with these responsibilities, and it’s now up to them to lead local governments toward financial stability, even during uncertain times.

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