Survey: Voters might support specific purpose tax

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Local voters still appear unwilling to add an extra cent of sales tax if it’s for a vague mix of improvements to roads, bridges and sewer systems. But they might increase the tax if it was for a specific set of infrastructure projects, suggest the results of a recent survey.

Voters in more than 2,100 households weighed in on the prospect of raising Park County’s sales tax in a mail survey conducted in March and April.

Around 52 percent said they would definitely or probably support adding another cent if it was a specific purpose tax for infrastructure; 39 percent said they would definitely or probably oppose it.

“If they (local governments) were really specific, and it was only focused on highest priority needs — (and they) told me exactly the dollar amounts — I might give them a fighting chance,” consultant Paul Hanley summarized of the message sent by survey respondents.

Hanley — a senior vice president with George K. Baum & Company in Cheyenne — presented the results to officials from Park County, the city of Powell, the city of Cody and the town of Meeteetse at a Monday afternoon meeting.

Hanley said he didn’t want to “sugarcoat” the findings. He thinks the local support for a specific purpose tax is at least 4 percent lower than the survey results indicated — and he said it’s common for mailed surveys to overstate support for a ballot measure by 8 to 10 percent.

“If we held (the election) today, I think it probably loses,” Hanley said.

He told the government officials that if they put together a really specific list of infrastructure-only projects, make sure to include projects in rural Park County, find private citizens who are willing to rally for the tax and appoint a committee of community leaders to oversee how the projects are carried out, they can improve their chances of getting a tax passed.

But even then, “you’re not going to win 55 percent” of the vote, Hanley said. “It’s going to be like 50 percent plus one vote.”

The results say the vast majority of locals — 83 percent — had heard at least some information about a possible 1 cent tax.

“People know about this issue,” Hanley said, adding later that, “it’s unlikely that additional public information efforts will dramatically shift voters’ current attitudes and opinions.”

The elected officials at Monday’s meeting said they needed more time to decide whether they’ll continue to pursue the idea of putting a 1 cent sales tax increase on the ballot this year, but a couple leaders indicated they see an opportunity.

“It seems like to me there is a chance; we do have some wiggle room in there,” Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden said of the results about the specific purpose tax, to agreement from Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown.

“It seems to me the biggest thing we’re combatting is that people don’t believe us when we tell them that we’re poor and getting poorer,” Tilden said. He noted that the county’s Road and Bridge Department may have its budget slashed by more than 20 percent this year — “and that may not even be enough.”

Brown suggested that if a proposal went forward, the governments might consider a $15 million to $20 million package of projects.

A total of 7,656 surveys were mailed to households with registered voters and 2,153 — or 28 percent — were returned. The typical response rate ranges between 8 and 17 percent, Hanley said. Slightly more than three-quarters of the respondents were 55 or older.

Between the four governments, a total of $13,464.21 taxpayer dollars were spent on the survey; $7,500 went to George K. Baum & Company for its consulting. While respondents appeared somewhat open to the idea of a specific purpose tax, they were less open to a general purpose tax.

Rather than collecting a specific amount of money for a specific list of projects, a general purpose tax would last two or four years and would generally be spent at the discretion of government officials.

Park County voters convincingly rejected a proposed 1 cent general purpose tax in 2012 — with nearly 61 percent opposed — even though local governments had promised to only spend the money on infrastructure.

The recent survey showed locals now being evenly split on the idea: 48 percent said they’d “definitely” or “probably” vote yes if the election was that day; another 48 percent said they’d vote no.However, beyond Hanley’s warning that mail surveys generally paint a more favorable picture, the number of people saying they’d “definitely” vote against the tax (36 percent) outnumbered those definitely voting yes (29 percent).

For whatever the reason, another idea of passing a half-cent general purpose sales tax rated even worse than doing a full cent: only 35 percent of respondents said they’d vote for that concept, while 56 precent said no.

Hanley said voters’ desire for specifics “just kind of resonated throughout the whole survey” — although the two hypothetical projects that rated the highest on the survey were the most vague.

Some 52 percent of residents ranked “repairing Park County’s bridges” as a high or relatively high priority while 49 percent said that about “repairing or replacing roadways in Park County.”

A lengthy list of proposed improvements for Meeteetse — ranging from upgrading the town’s water treatment plan to chip sealing streets — also fared relatively well, with 44 percent ranking the projects as a high or medium-high priority.

None of the six other projects suggested by the city of Cody and the city of Powell were ranked as priorities by more than 30 percent of respondents.

“I think it’s time to circle back around and look at your projects,” Hanley suggested.

Cody polled voters about:

• Reconstructing Beacon Hill Road and a part of Sheridan Avenue.

• Adding curb, gutter and sidewalk on 29th Street.

• Adding a water storage tank near Beacon Hill to improve the water system.

• Upgrading its wastewater lagoons and storm drainage system.

• Adding wheelchair-accessible ramps around the city.

Powell suggested:

• Widening and improving Absaroka Street.

• Widening A, B, C and D avenues.

• Improving the storm drainage system on Division Street.

• Repaving Seventh Street and overlaying Grand Street.

“What we thought was a high priority obviously isn’t,” said Powell Mayor Don Hillman.

While most of the infrastructure projects didn’t fare particularly well, they generally did better than other possible projects, such as recreation or funding for community groups. For example, 46 percent of voters gave recreation-related projects the very lowest priority.

At Monday’s meeting, local officials tasked Hanley with digging into the data and checking to see if each community had a strong preference for a priority. For example, did city of Powell residents actually rank Absaroka Street as a top job?

“That (information) is huge, because that’s basically going to tip whether we even want to do a specific purpose tax,” Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall said of looking at each community’s priorities. “Because if it’s still the same, I don’t feel all that good about it.”

Hanley also said that getting support from all of the government leaders is “critical” to passing a tax.

“We could be trying to fund an orphanage, and if we don’t have support from public officials, and if they’re out bad-mouthing the project, it’s not going to pass,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a tenth of a cent.”

Park County officials appear unlikely to unanimously back a new tax. Park County Commission Chairman Tim French led the opposition to the effort to raise the sales tax in 2012 and has said he plans to do it again this year.

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