Commission candidates talk budget, development at public forum

Posted

The Republican candidates for the Park County Commission who gathered in Powell last week seemed to generally agree the county government has been run pretty well. But there were still a number of suggestions about how the county could do a bit better.

Nine of the 10 Republicans seeking the three open seats on the commission attended the July 12 forum at the Park County Fairgrounds: incumbent Joe Tilden and challengers Lloyd Thiel of Clark, Pat Stuart of Heart Mountain, Dossie Overfield of Cody, Cathy Marine of Powell, Anton Lehman of Heart Mountain, Richard George of Heart Mountain,  Bob Berry of Cody and Zach Bowman of Cody. The only candidate missing at the Park County Republican Women’s forum was Bob Stevens, a retired attorney from Wapiti. The discussion — held before an audience of about 60 people — lasted roughly an hour.

County budget

One of the questions posed to the candidates was whether there’s anything they would have changed in the county’s recently passed budget.

Bowman, a realtor who owns a lawn care and snow removal business, said he would have liked to see commissioners place more of an emphasis on each department’s revenue and how much money was left over at the end of year; he suggested departments apply for more grants.

With that shift in focus, “We can be a lot more apt to give them a little if they need an extra grader, something to that effect,” Bowman said.

Marine, a retired college educator, said she feels “that our county is doing very well and it’s been managed very, very well.”

“But we can always improve what we can do with our money,” she added.

Marine also urged people to look at their local government’s budget, saying that with the various special property tax districts, “there’s a lot of money out there that we’re spending.”

Thiel, a rancher and owner of an excavation business, said he wouldn’t necessarily change anything — though he did say he’d generally like the county to become more efficient.

“We need to run more as your dollars instead of the government’s dollars,” he said.

Berry, the owner of a bed and breakfast, said he’s not a numbers guy, but wouldn’t do a whole lot different with the budget.

“The commissioners have done a wonderful job in the past,” he said, citing the county’s roughly $16 million reserve account for contingencies.

Tilden, who’s seeking a third four-year term on the commission, said he’s very proud of the budget for the coming fiscal year.

Following several years of cutting, an influx of money from the federal government allowed the county to approve “very well-deserved” 5 percent raises for employees while also putting another $2 million into savings, Tilden said.

“We have to put ourselves in a position where we attract qualified people, because Park County is in the service business,” he said of the raises. “We service the people of Park County and that’s the most important thing.”

George, who’s transitioning out of the farming business, took issue with the size of the raises, noting that the county also agreed to pay for employees’ increased health insurance premiums.

“I honestly feel like we should have given our county employees an option of a 1 or 2 percent, 3 percent increase or we would continue to cover their health insurance premium increase, but not both,” he said. George added that he does believe “in paying for our employees” and said some workers are still underpaid, even after the raises.

Lehman, the owner of a musical instrument repair shop and a part-time county employee, said he’d heard that not all employees got the 5 percent raise.

“We gave a large raise to the elected officials and yet not everybody in the county” got the 5 percent raise, he said, specifically referring to the museum and library boards.

County Clerk Colleen Renner said commissioners gave the museum and library boards the funding to approve 5 percent raises for all library and museum employees; it was up to those boards to decide how to distribute the money.

Stuart, meanwhile, criticized the commission for putting another $2 million into its roughly $16 million reserve account.

“That is an amazing amount of money in reserves” given the county’s roughly $26 million budget, she said, saying most entities have no more than six months of operating reserves.

“This is well above that and I feel that, rather than charging the taxpayers of the county a 1 cent tax, we should be spending some of that money down or using it for new projects — like a Powell library, which has been on the books as being needed since 2007,” said Stuart, a former CIA officer.

Overfield, a former manager of a water district and Cody school board member, said she appreciated the way the commissioners went over the budget line by line and met with every department head to figure out where things did and didn’t work.

“I also think that when you have things like as many bridges as the county has and as many snow removal issues as the county has with storms possible, that sometimes a reserve like that can come in handy,” she said, adding, “Knowing that we have that kind of reserve doesn’t really bother me too much.”

Upcoming opportunities

Another question posed to the panel asked what they see as the county’s biggest opportunities in the coming years.

Tilden cited economic development and praised the work of Powell Economic Partnership and Forward Cody, while citing the importance of tourism and lifting restrictions on oil and gas production.

Bowman also cited economic development as the big opportunity — though he suggested the county government’s role is to be as small as possible to let growth happen.

“I think as a commissioner, we just need to remember that we’re not always the professionals; the entrepreneurs are,” Bowman said.

Marine said there are many opportunities, with each Park County community having its own strengths — such as Powell having agriculture and Northwest College.

“There’s a variety of things we can look at strengths in each one, that become strengths for the entire county,” she said.

In the coming years, Thiel said to expect more people, which will mean more development.

As commissioners, “I think the best thing we can do is stay out of their way [and] assist in what we can to keep the values of Park County; we don’t need it destroyed,” Thiel said.

He said his background in excavation, building and construction would be helpful in keeping development in the best interests of the entire county.

George said he’s heard Park County may have substantial amounts of natural resources still in the ground, but that he thinks the county’s economy will grow beyond oil, agriculture and tourism. He said the commission’s job will be “to make sure if there is red tape, that we have connections in Washington and at the state level to fight for the people of Wyoming — regardless of what industry it is.”

Berry said the county needs to develop its tourism — using the county’s two entrances to Yellowstone National Park — and to create jobs.

“It is difficult to keep young people here, because the best opportunity — and these are great jobs — is to wait tables and make beds,” Berry said. “That’s admirable, but you can’t buy a house with it.”

Lehman predicted that tourism will become a bigger part of Park County, but expressed doubt about the county’s ability to retain its youth.

“Yes, we need to get jobs, we need to keep people working, but we have to have the reality that the kids are going to leave no matter what,” he said, citing his own children as examples.

Stuart disputed that.

“Give them [young people] good jobs; they love this place and they will stay,” she said, adding that, “I think that the commission needs to take more of an active role in being county leaders and in finding ways through non-taxed areas to grow our economy.”

Later in the forum, Thiel noted how he built up his businesses and suggested that could be a model for young people.

“The opportunities are here; we just need to show them,” he said.

Overfield also saw economic development as an opportunity, along with the tourism and minerals industries.

“I think the one thing that the commissioners need to work on, or at least keep in mind, is as these things happen, we need to stay out in front of what the people need,” she said.

If more people are coming in — through new jobs or more tourism — the county needs to have the infrastructure in place to keep up with them, she said. Having the roads, services and extras that people want will make both visitors and residents happier, Overfield said.

The Park County Republican Women plan to host another forum on July 31 at the Holiday Inn in Cody.

Absentee ballots available now

Wyoming’s primary election is Aug. 21, but you don’t have to wait until then to cast your ballot.

Voters can request and cast absentee ballots from now through Aug. 20; absentee voting actually began on July 6 — 45 days before the election.

Absentee ballots can be requested at the Park County Clerk’s Office by phone (754-8620), email (voterinfo@parkcounty.us) or in-person at the elections office inside the courthouse in Cody.

Already, some 732 Park County residents have requested absentee ballots. That’s a little less than 5 percent of the nearly 15,700 residents who were registered to vote in Park County as of Wednesday, according to data from Elections Deputy Pat Cole. In the 2014 primary election, a total of 2,085 residents wound up voting absentee.

Sample ballots for each political party and precinct plus more information about voting — including a list of all the candidates and offices up for election — are available online at www.parkcountyelections.net.

Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, the state’s top elections official, recently urged eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote in the primary election.

“The outcome of races across our state this August will not only determine the candidate choices placed before voters in November, but also the future of our state,” Buchanan said in a July 6 news release.

Wyoming Election Director Kai Schon added that, “The voter decides when to vote, either early by absentee or on Election Day. Therefore, truly there is little excuse not to vote.”

If you haven’t registered to vote, you can do so on the same day that you cast your ballot — including on Election Day, Aug. 21.

Comments