Leaders from the municipalities, particularly, have cited a need to bolster their revenues just to keep current services steady. While the majority of the 4 percent sales tax goes to the state of Wyoming, the additional cent of tax would go almost entirely to Park County, Cody, Powell and Meeteetse. It would need to be passed by a majority of voters, then periodically renewed to stay on the books.
County voters rejected such a request in 2012, with more than 60 percent voting against it.
Mayors, city council members and county commissioners threw out several theories Tuesday as to why the 2012 tax failed, including that the public didn’t fully understand it, that it was on the ballot at the same time as the renewal of the separate lodging tax, that it was difficult to explain through the media and that pledging to spend the tax only on unexciting infrastructure projects didn’t motivate voters.
There also was some finger-pointing during the meeting at Powell City Hall.
If an optional 1-cent tax is to succeed, “I think we’d have to have 100 percent participation from the elected officials,” said Powell Mayor Don Hillman.
“Or at least not vocal opposition,” said Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown.
Last year, Park County Commissioner Tim French spearheaded a campaign against the tax and said he didn’t believe local governments needed more money.
“I felt things were on a pretty good course and then got torpedoed,” Brown said.
“I have a right to be out there and be as vocal as I want to be,” French responded. “Now, the voters have the decision and they happened to agree (with me), overwhelmingly. Maybe everybody else should listen to the voters. They said, ‘No, not at this time.’”
However, other elected officials at the meeting said it may just take multiple tries to pass the tax.
“There’s got to be at least some type of willingness to at least continue on the education process,” said Cody City Administrator Jenni Rosencranse, noting several failures before a fifth cent of tax passed in Fremont County.
Powell City Councilman Eric Paul suggested putting the tax back on Park County ballots sooner rather than later “because the odds are it’s not going to pass next time.”
“It’s going to take two, three, four tries before you get people educated enough,” Paul said.
Fellow Powell Councilman John Wetzel was more optimistic, saying he believed it could pass if the community is surveyed beforehand “and the direct benefit (from the tax) is not,
‘We’re going to keep your sewers working’; the direct benefit is something more interesting.”
Rosencranse said part of the reason Natrona County has found success with its optional 1-cent tax is that it’s every use in the city of Casper “touches an emotional feeling” for citizens. Beyond infrastructure such as new sidewalks and storm drains, Rosencranse said a tax could fund the city of Cody’s support of community groups like the Boys and Girls Club or to build walking or biking paths.
Hillman suggested the tax could be used in Powell to offset the operating deficit at the Powell Aquatic Center, help fund the Powell golf course or aid economic development efforts.
Park County Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf, who helped lead the campaign for the tax last year, noted that hundreds of hours of time were spent on the effort and that new volunteers would likely be needed. Grosskopf specifically suggested finding a large coalition of citizens — last time it was a group of three — to advocate for the tax in the community.
The officials differed on how receptive a public they’ll find.
“The things that we could do for the people, that we can’t do now, that we could have done (with the tax), I think they see that and that maybe we ought to try again,” said Powell City Councilman Floyd Young.
Brown, however, said she thinks the public’s split, with some of the belief that the cities and county are doing fine in the wake of the 2012 tax’s failure.
The leaders from Powell, Cody, Meeteetse and Park County agreed to begin working on a survey they’ll send out to Park County residents, asking for what they see as needs and priorities for local government.
“That’s all well and good, but the very people that put us in office said a big no on that tax,” said French.
Wetzel disagreed, noting the tax nearly passed (failing 51.4 percent against to 48.6 percent in favor) within Powell’s city limits.
“The majority of Powell was right there, so the people that put me in office sent me to try to figure out how we can work together to make it happen,” Wetzel said.
“It was 50-50 in Powell,” said French. “So 50 percent of people that put you in office, they disagreed with you.”
“Yeah, those that had the facts were probably right there in the 50 percent zone,” Wetzel said.
“They had enough facts,” French said.
“And they had enough lies,” Wetzel responded.
Wetzel and other supporters of the tax believed French’s opposition group, Citizens for Responsible Taxation, overstated the annual impact the additional cent of tax would have had on the average household. French stood by the number.
“60-40,” he told Wetzel on Tuesday, referring to the tax’s margin of failure across the county.
The city and county officials will meet again in January or February.