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Counties back Gov. Mead’s budget proposal

County commissioners from around the Big Horn Basin laid out their priorities for the upcoming session of the Wyoming Legislature — from getting state funding to requiring more accountability from special districts — at a meeting with local legislators last month.

Right off the bat, commissioners from Park, Big Horn, Washakie and Hot Springs counties urged basin lawmakers to support Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s proposal to give counties, cities and towns $25 million in the coming year.

“We think that’s a good use of funds,” said Washakie County Commissioner Ron Harvey at the Dec. 6 gathering in Cody. He and other commissioners noted counties could face substantial cuts in federal funding this fiscal year and said they’ve been managing their budgets frugally.

Harvey also assured legislators the counties understand the state’s financial position, and “You won’t see the counties going up there (to the Legislature) and saying, ‘We want more than that.’” He said the counties would be happy if $25 million is approved.

Commissioners also are supporting bills that would provide $40 million to clean up contaminated landfills around the state (no Big Horn Basin sites are high priorities) and $5 million to help communities build garbage transfer stations to cut down on their hauling trips to regional landfills.

Fees and taxes

A proposal to add another 10 cents of tax on fuel and another to increase vehicle registration fees were also backed by the Big Horn Basin’s commissioners. The money would go toward road maintenance.

“We just felt we need to support whatever can be done to help save the roads,” said Park County Commissioner Dave Burke. The Wyoming Department of Transportation says it needs $134 million to maintain the state’s roads and highways.

Commissioners qualified that they want to make sure the Big Horn Basin’s roads — currently facing a substantial cut in funding as the state focuses on Interstate 80 — get their fair share.

If the fuel tax passes, Harvey predicted that gas will initially go up 10 cents a gallon, but would eventually “go right back down to where we were.”

Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said he’s not convinced the state has done enough to cut spending. He said the state spent “like drunken sailors” over the last 10 years.

“I still see agencies with more than enough money to spare,” Peterson said. Further, he asked how he could tell his constituents their fuel taxes are going up while the state has millions of dollars in savings.

On the other hand, Peterson noted Wyoming’s fuel tax is the region’s lowest, and he said the Wyoming Department of Transportation needs a stable source of funding for roads.

“I haven’t made a decision yet and I’m chairing this (revenue) committee,” he said.

Park County Clerk’s Office First Deputy Mike Demoney said Wyoming’s clerks plan to ask for hikes in their fees as well.

“They haven’t changed in a while,” Demoney said. A draft of the suggestions include raising marriage licenses from $25 to $30 and plat filings from $50 to $75.

Peterson and Harvey encouraged the clerks to seek the fee increases this session while other increases are being considered.

If the tenor of the discussion between Big Horn Basin commissioners and legislators was any indication, the Game and Fish Department may not be getting the fee hikes it wants on hunting and fishing licenses.

“I’m against this,” said Sen. Gerry Geis, R-Worland.

“So are we,” said Harvey.

“They’re just to the point they’re going to price themselves out of business,” said Tilden, criticizing the department’s lack of budget cuts.

“This is the easiest route for them to go, so that’s what they’re going to do,” he said later.

Special district transparency

A proposal to require all special districts — such as hospitals, cemeteries, fire and conservation districts — to post their budgets on their county government’s website was a hit with commissioners.

“We really would like to see those budgets put on a website to where they’re visible,” Harvey said. “We want transparency.”

Park County commissioners asked Wyoming’s attorney general earlier this year if they could cut the amount of tax dollars collected by special districts, thereby reducing local property taxes; commissioners said they’ve received complaints from citizens that certain special districts are stockpiling money in reserves. Attorney General Greg Phillips, however, said commissioners have no power to cut districts’ budgets since those districts’ leaders are, like commissioners, directly elected by voters.

Tilden praised the idea of having the districts’ budgets online, while renewing his criticism of the districts.

“A lot of the taxpayers really don’t have any idea what’s going on,” Tilden said. He complained some districts build up large reserves and are “just spending money to be spending money, and that’s not being fair to the taxpayer.”

Local legislators were supportive of putting the budgets online.

“I think it’s a nice way to get it sorted out and find out what’s there,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland.

“I bet we find out some interesting things about our special districts,” said Peterson, whose Big Horn County has more than 70 special districts.

The 2013 Legislative session begins Tuesday in Cheyenne.

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