The “Building Infrastructure With a Penny” political action committee, comprised of a cross-section of community members, is taking its “1 for 11” message to voters as the Nov. 6 election approaches.
Without additional funding for infrastructure — unlikely to come from the state or elsewhere — local residents will begin noticing cutbacks in years to come, said Shawn Warner, chairman of the political action committee. The group’s goal is to educate voters about the need for a 1-cent tax for Wyoming’s county 11.
“Very few people understand the funding conditions and circumstances for our municipalities and counties are at a place we haven’t seen in a long time,” Warner wrote in an email to the Tribune. “If we don’t take steps to help ourselves out, in a couple of years we are going to find our local governments without the resources to provide what most of us consider critical services. Our elected officials are going to be forced to make decisions that most of us don’t like.”
Getting ahead of those financial problems will help municipalities and the county in the long run, he said.
“We all understand that properly maintaining our infrastructure will be less costly than waiting for it to fail and then fixing it. That is the choice we have,” he said.
City Administrator Zane Logan noted that the city has relied on grant money for slurry seal projects to preserve local streets.
“If you don’t do the crack fill and then the slurry seal, you’re looking at rebuilding,” Logan said. “And that’s what’s getting to be a major concern for us, is that we don’t have the money to do the basic maintenance.”
Many counties in Wyoming depend on revenue from optional 1-cent sales taxes, Logan said. Out of 23 counties, Park is one of three without an additional cent sales tax to benefit local governments. Voters in neighboring Big Horn County are deciding a sixth-penny tax proposal in November.
By the numbers
Currently, the 4 percent sales tax generates roughly $26.4 million a year in Park County, Warner said. Of that, 70 percent goes to the state, leaving 30 percent — or around $8 million — in Park County.
By comparison, 99 percent of revenue from a fifth-penny tax would stay in Park County, and only 1 percent would go toward the state.
The fifth-penny tax is estimated to generate $6.5 million each year. It’s estimated that 30 percent of that money will be paid by visitors to Park County, Warner said.
Based on populations, the $6.5 million would be split among Park County ($2.9 million), Cody ($2.3 million), Powell ($1.3 million) and Meeteetse ($85,000).
Municipalities and counties have limited ways of generating revenue outside of an optional sales tax, Warner said.
Logan noted that Powell has grown both in land developments and population with nearly 1,000 people in the past decade.
“All that takes more services,” he said. “And the income’s not there. It isn’t even the level it was 10 years ago, but we have more area and more demand on services.”
The city of Powell recently identified a list of maintenance projects that the fifth-penny tax would pay for. (See related graphic.)
Logan said the projects aren’t listed in any order of priority. Some projects have been put off for years. Or decades, in the case of widening Absaroka Street.
“There’s no way that the city’s ever going to do something like that (with current funding levels),” Logan said. “Even though it’s a state highway, it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain. It does get a lot traffic and is one of our main north-south routes through town.”
The Park County Commission would use funds from the tax to maintain and repair bridges and farm-to-market roads, which connect agriculture areas to market towns.
“The county has 40 bridges that are 40 years old or older. Two are 90 years old,” Warner said. “These bridges will continue to age and deteriorate.”
Meeteetse’s tax money will go toward needed improvements to its water and sewer systems.
The city of Cody’s proposed projects include storm drainages, reconstruction of the Beacon Hill Road and improvements to water tanks.
The Powell and Cody city councils recently passed ordinances to ensure the tax revenue would be used toward infrastructure and maintenance. If future leaders decide they want to use the money toward something else, it would then require three public readings over six weeks.
“It just adds another layer of security that it couldn’t be done randomly at one meeting,” Logan said. “It would take some time, and there would be plenty of opportunity — a month and a half — for members of the public to react if elected people decide to do that, which I just can’t imagine they would even conceive trying to do that.”
A competing political action committee, “Citizens for Responsible Taxation,” is opposing the tax.
Park County Commission Chairman Tim French is chairing the group. He was the lone local official to vote against putting the measure on the ballot.
French says the tax is unnecessary and would hurt local businesses and residents in a tough economy.
“We’re driving all that money north. So much of that money is going to Billings now, we add one more cent of sales tax, I mean, in my view, that’s going to hurt our local businesses that hire local people,” French said in an interview. “I mean, it’s like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by doing this.”
French said the tax would be “a real hardship” for senior citizens and others on fixed incomes. He said a 2001 study by the University of Wyoming found 1 cent of sales tax would cost the average Park County household $1,433 over a four-year period (how long the tax would last before going back to voters).
“That’s a huge cost,” French said, noting that those decade-old figures are higher when adjusted for inflation today.
He also said the study found the average rancher or farmer would pay $4,583 over the same four years. However, that quoted figure should be lower today since the Wyoming Legislature exempted farm implements from sales tax in 2003.
French said expects new taxes from the federal government, and he questioned why local governments would want to add to locals’ tax burden. He said governments should cut their budgets before asking for new taxes.
“I think local governments should live within their means; every household out there has to,” French said. “I just don’t feel we can tax ourselves into prosperity.”
He said he also is concerned that if a fifth cent passes, a sixth cent will be sought later.
The commissioner also said the county is “doing just fine” with maintaining its roads and bridges and doesn’t need the money. (Commissioner Loren Grosskopf, who’s on the committee that’s been getting out the message about the need for the tax, has a different take that will be discussed in a future edition of Tribune.)
As for the fact that Park County is only one of three counties without the fifth cent, French says Park County is unique in its easy access to Billings and its lack of sales tax.
Further, “It’s like your mom used to tell you: well, if everybody else is jumping off a cliff are you going to?” French said.
“In the end it’s up to the public, but I hope they really look at it,” he said later. “In my view it’s going to hurt our jobs and hurt everybody in this county.”
Warner and Logan concede that no tax is easily passed in Park County; voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1-cent tax proposal for West Park Hospital in 2010.
“I know this is Park County, Wyo., and I know that tax is a four-letter word here,” Logan said.
Though very conservative, “Park County residents also believe in self-reliance and not begging people in Cheyenne to take care of us when we are one of only three counties in the entire state that do not have at least a one cent optional tax,” Warner said. “I believe the residents of Park County who receive the proper amount of information will vote to be self-reliant and take care of ourselves.”
Once people understand the costs and benefits of the fifth-penny tax, “the feedback we have received to date has been incredibly positive,” Warner said. The tax has received the support of “many people we would not have anticipated it from,” he added.
Logan said local leaders have a responsibility to explain the financial situation and need for maintenance funding.
“You can’t tell people two or three years from now that things are going to be different than they’re used to if you don’t at least make this attempt to try and educate them. And that way when things do change, you can say, well, that was explained,” he said.
Without the tax, Warner said, the revenues will have to be generated in other ways. “Those other means are potentially harder on fixed-income residents,” he said.
The fate of the tax depends on voters, not local leaders, Logan stressed.
“We want to get the information and data out there, we want the public to be informed. When they get in the voting booth, this is America. You vote the way you want,” Logan said.