Elected leaders in Powell, Cody and Meeteetse say they must have more money if they’re to maintain today’s services and infrastructure against a growing population, higher costs and fewer available dollars. In contrast, Park County commissioners say the county’s doing fine right now, but in general, they share the municipalities’ concerns about how they’ll maintain the county’s infrastructure — particularly bridges — in coming years.
Park County Commission Chairman Tim French is the exception. He’s leading a group that opposes the additional 1 cent sales tax, which would be reserved for infrastructure projects like sewer systems, roads and bridges.
French opposes the tax on several grounds, one of them being a contention that it isn’t needed.
“This (tax) is long-term, and I can’t speak for the cities, but the county doesn’t need it,” French said in a recent interview. He said the county is improving its roads and bridges “all the time.”
“We’re continually upgrading bridges with the money we’ve got,” French said.
He noted recent projects that include a bridge over the Clark’s Fork River near the fish hatchery, a bridge on the South Fork, rebuilding of Lane 9 between Powell and Wyo. 295 and a new road and bridge shop in Powell, along with several planned new bridges and building improvements.
French also noted that the county recently increased how many roads it chip seals each year and has roughly $12 million in reserves (enough for about six months of operation).
“If the county suddenly starts getting $3 million extra a year — that’s $12 million or better over the next four years — are we just going to go on some kind of feeding frenzy?” French said. “I might look at it differently if the county was struggling, but we’re not.”
His fellow commissioners agree that the county doesn’t need the tax as much as the municipalities, but differ with French about the future.
“If you look down the road, I don’t share Tim (French)’s optimism, I guess, that we’ll be able to find money from the state or the federal (government),” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.
Grosskopf, who serves on a local government committee putting out information on the need for the tax, noted potential budget cuts at the state and federal level. Those dollars ($3.41 million) make up more than 14 percent of this year’s budget.
“We’ve always relied upon the state and federal money for those building projects,” Grosskopf said.
As an example, the $1.93 million new Powell road and bridge shop noted by French was almost entirely paid for with the discretionary state money that counties fear could dwindle.
Commissioners Bucky Hall and Joe Tilden share Grosskopf’s fears.
“We can only hope the federal government stops printing money, and I have to believe that well’s going to start running dry,” Hall said.
“We’re all nervous to what the future’s going to bring,” said Tilden. He noted that the state is considering 8 percent budget cuts.
“If that basically falls through to the counties, yeah, we’ll be a little bit short,” Tilden said.
Bridges are the commissioners’ top worry.
“We’ve got a couple bridges that I really don’t know what we’re going to do with them,” said Tilden.
Among the county’s more than 80 bridges, Grosskopf said 40 are at least four decades old. Ten of them are 50 years old and two have turned 90. A couple of the bridges coming up for work are going to cost $2 million each, he said.
“We don’t have enough money in our road and bridge account on an annual basis to start repairing a bunch of bridges,” Grosskopf said, wondering how much all 40 bridges will cost. The county could probably absorb the cost if they could do one bridge a year, but if one were to fail, he could see users — like farmers — having to go without.
“It’s a real need and it’s a serious need,” said Commissioner Dave Burke of the aging bridges. Some on the list, he said, need to be seriously considered for replacement.
“To put it on the back-burner is not the solution,” Burke said.
Grosskopf said the county has “pretty well kept our heads above water for roads,” but he notes there are 100 miles of dirt roads. Bringing them up to gravel would cost about $12 million by itself.
“That would chew up all of our reserves right there,” Grosskopf said. Bringing all the county’s roads up a step (dirt to gravel, gravel to pit run, pit run to crush base, crush base to chip seal, chip seal to paved) would cost $40-some million.
Burke said that although he’s opposed past sales taxes, he’s seriously concerned about Park County’s infrastructure and will support this one.
Burke said the county does not need more money for normal operations, but does need it for bridges that “are just plumb expensive to replace.”
“I realize that it (the proposed tax) is going only for infrastructure,” Burke said. “If it was going otherwise, I would oppose it.”
Hall said he’ll probably vote for the tax “because I think it’s the least painful way to increase taxes to increase revenue to the counties and towns.” Though it will hit business owners like himself and on farmers’ big purchases like tractor tires, he noted groceries are exempt from sales tax in Wyoming.
“If it was still on food, I would say no,” he said. “That would be a back-breaker for me.”
Tilden agrees the county may end up needing more money down the road, but he also won’t be out campaigning for the tax.
Grosskopf paints a grim picture of future budgets for voters to consider.
“I don’t see our costs going down, and our revenue’s basically flat or going down,” Grosskopf said. “If you look down the road three or four years from now, it’s not a rosy picture.
“At some point, we’re going to have to reduce our level of essential services or it will force us to reduce the money we’re spending on social services, like the money we give to the senior center or the animal shelters or the parks and (recreation) departments,” he said.
Grosskopf noted the commissioners only account for one vote a piece.
“I think each individual voter needs to educate themselves and decide: does my town, does my county, need more money to operate?” said Hall.