Sitting Republican commissioners Bill Brewer and Tim French, along with challengers Joe Tilden, A.M. “Hank” Whitelock, Bill Yetter, Loren Grosskopf, Ted Davey, and Karla Dee Gitlitz, all Republicans, plus Democrat Faith Wicks, squared …
Nine of the 13 candidates for the Park County Commission made pitches to the Cody business community at a forum last week.Questions at the July 29 event centered around economic development.The forum, held in the Coe Auditorium at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, was open only to invitees: Cody Chamber of Commerce members, Forward Cody investors and local media.
Sitting Republican commissioners Bill Brewer and Tim French, along with challengers Joe Tilden, A.M. “Hank” Whitelock, Bill Yetter, Loren Grosskopf, Ted Davey, and Karla Dee Gitlitz, all Republicans, plus Democrat Faith Wicks, squared off in the forum.
Republican candidates Chad Miner and Vicki Gibson of Powell and South Fork residents Fred Reynolds and Jill Shockley Siggins, a sitting commissioner, were absent.
The candidates tended to agree that maintaining the best infrastructure possible and having a level regulatory playing field were critical to economic development and business growth in the county.
“It's kind of like the Kevin Costner (film), ‘Field of Dreams' — ‘I'll build it and they will come,'” said Tilden, a South Fork ranch manager. “We've built the infrastructure that's so important for economic development.”
Wicks, a homemaker from Powell, said it was important to bring in quality businesses, “not just run-of-the-mill expresso houses everywhere.” She suggested looking to other states and said the empty business incubator south of Powell should be put to use.
Yetter, who works construction in Meeteetse, said the county should have essential regulation only. He defined economic development as the use of local resources, labor and capital to “have a better life in Park County.”
Davey said there has been little activity in the area in past decades. He noted Walmart and Walgreens came to Cody, but “that's not really what you want to do,” he said. Davey, a retired respiratory therapist from Meeteetse, said the state needs to increase its recruitment of technology and software companies.
Brewer, a former Park County Sheriff from Cody, cited the importance of the county working with local economic development groups like forum host Forward Cody.
Grosskopf, a retired accountant from Cody, said the county needs to move forward to avoid sliding backward.
“I personally don't want Park County to be known as a retirement community,” he said.
Whitelock, a construction worker in Cody, said the county should look at increasing Internet-based businesses and manufacturing jobs. He suggested the county promote the railroad as a means of getting goods in and out of the area, but he also said government can't push economic development.
Gitlitz, a Meeteetse-area ranch manager, said the county should continue to fight against the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, which most notably involves the management of the wolf.
“If we end up losing those battles, people aren't going to come here,” Gitlitz said, adding later, “Our resources in Park County are our economic development.”
French, a Heart Mountain area farmer, said the most important thing the county can do is “making the area such a nice place to live that people want to come and bring their business to our area.” He noted facilities like the new jail and the Park County Complex.
When asked what specific cuts they would make to the county budget in an election year where the common message “is about trimming ‘fat' from government,” there were few specific cuts offered. There was widespread agreement that generally, the county should focus on maintaining essential services, such as roads.
“Everything else you're going to have to look at and say, ‘Is it something we need this year? Is it something we should cut?'” said Gitlitz.
Whitelock said outside of essential services, everything else is redistribution, “which is basically taking from some taxpayers and giving to others.” Whitelock suggested not spending federal grant money, which he said grows the federal government and comes with strings.
Grosskopf warned that cuts may be needed in the future — contending the county's general revenues are $2.9 million less than general spending.
“The problem is a lot larger than you've been lead to believe,” he said. However, Grosskopf said, “I don't know enough about the budget where I can point to specific things (to cut).”
Wicks suggested cutting elected officials' salaries and benefits, saying commissioners should pay their own health insurance.
Davey also criticized commissioners' compensation; in a budget crunch, he said the county would have to look at cutting man-hours and laying people off.
Zero-based budgeting, he said, would help eliminate waste that could be cut before layoffs were needed.
Brewer said the county already examines the budget line by line and didn't have any cuts in mind. He noted the Road and Bridge Department spending tends to be the highest.
“If we cut Road and Bridge and stop fixing roads, I'd hate to see what'd happen in this county,” he said.
French said the county already is one of the most efficient in the state. He noted that the none of the respondents had identified specific cuts “because they couldn't.” He asked if the candidates wanted to cut funding to programs like the county's senior centers or Crisis Intervention Services.
“We make tough decisions all the time,” he said.
When faced with declining revenue, Tilden said there are two options — cutting spending or finding a way to boost revenue. He said that's why economic development — increasing the tax base — is so important, highlighting the importance of having the best infrastructure to draw businesses. Tilden also cited his past experience in cutting $1.5 million out of a $12 million budget with the Cody school district.
Yetter suggested improving efficiency while closely examining non-essential services and personal requests.
Business owner and Cody Councilman Stan Wolz asked the candidates how they would address communication with the county's municipalities.
Whitelock said the county needs to improve its communication with its outlying communities. He said Meeteetse, Clark and Powell “has a little bit of a step-child treatment.”
“Even though Cody is the county seat, it's not the only place in the county,” Whitelock said.
Agreed Wicks, of Powell, “We do feel like red-headed stepchildren down there sometimes.” She said commissioners should listen to people all over the county.
Yetter said the county and cities should look for opportunities to work together, and noted communities have different needs.
Grosskopf said communication, such as periodic joint sessions, usually can resolve issues.
Davey said the county's municipalities are not equally represented, pointing to a June instance where the commission balked at reducing Meeteetse's garbage rates.
“They didn't even get consideration,” he said.
In response, Brewer said the commission hasn't finished with Meeteetse's landfill situation. He also said the county and the municipalities should commit to meeting more often.
“I think we need a monthly meeting, to tell you the truth,” Brewer said.
French said it was important to keep in mind that “We're all representing the same people,” adding, “Sometimes we get trapped into our little worlds, and that's not a good thing.”
As to Davey's comment that the county gave Meeteetse no consideration, “Give me a break,” French said, noting that the county provides subsidized law enforcement and chip seals the town's streets because the town can't afford it.
“We've bent over backwards for everybody out there,” he said.
Gitlitz said commissioners should make a routine of going to groups like senior centers to listen. “It's not just an election year,” she said.