At a pair of forums last week, candidates for the Park County Commission spoke about how they might cut the county budget or raise more revenue, but none formally endorsed the idea of a new 1% sales …
At a pair of forums last week, candidates for the Park County Commission spoke about how they might cut the county budget or raise more revenue, but none formally endorsed the idea of a new 1% sales tax.
Voters will be asked to decide this fall whether they want to raise Park County’s sales tax rate and provide more money to the county, Powell, Cody and Meeteetse governments. Some officials have said the tax is necessary to preserve existing public services amid tough economic times and tight budgets. But Republican commission candidates Scott Mangold of Powell, Ted Smith of Cody and incumbent Jake Fulkerson of Cody said they are leaving the decision up to voters. The fourth Republican candidate for the two available seats, Commissioner Lee Livingston of Wapiti, missed the two forums in Powell and Cody due to work. This story combines remarks made at both forums, which were hosted by the Park County Republican Women.
Mangold, a Powell city councilman, expressed the most skepticism about the new tax, saying that, “the town of Powell doesn’t need it.” He said the city has $4 million in reserves and a balanced budget, though he added that what will happen with next year’s budgets at the city and county level “is a huge question.”
“There’s going to be some sacrifices coming up,” Mangold said. “But we can get through without it [the tax].”
Fulkerson said he is not an advocate for the new tax, though he did note that the county’s annual revenues currently lag about $2 million behind expenditures. He suggested people read the county’s budget message and cautioned that the quality of life in Park County will be different in the coming years “if we continue on the same budget trajectory.”
“I would really encourage you to get educated,” Fulkerson said, “Because it’s really important for the future of the county.”
Smith, who works as a custodian for the county government, said he was staying neutral on the issue because “I don’t want to be seen as trying to line my own pockets.”
However, “nothing makes you a more astute businessman than an empty wallet,” he said.
As for what the candidates would cut from the budget, Fulkerson noted that the county has been “agonizing over that for two years.” He said there’s some room to cut expenses through efficiencies, but said “there is no fat in the county right now.”
Fulkerson also pointed to the commission’s ongoing hiring freeze and said that, although it’s been “really hard,” he’s been voting to block departments from filling positions when they become vacant.
Smith — who favors going to a three-member commission — said the first cut he’d make is to stop commissioners from receiving compensation for their mileage for their trips to and from the Park County Courthouse in Cody.
“That is unforgivable,” he said of the practice, only used by some commissioners over the years.
Mangold talked about the possibility of employee furloughs and incentives for early retirement and said that during tough times, “you’ve got to stay pretty steady with no additional raises and even … no bonuses.” That was an apparent criticism of the commission’s recent decision to pay one-time bonuses — generally valued at 2% of employees’ annual salaries — plus raises for a handful of employees who have taken on new duties or performed exceptionally well.
In explaining his opposition to raising pay, Mangold said as a small business owner, he doesn’t get cost of living adjustments and said the county gets “a lot of applications” when it has openings for positions.
“There are a lot of people that would like to work for the county,” said Mangold, who co-owns the radio station KPOW, adding, “There’s some people there that are making some good money.”
For his part, Smith said he and other county employees are “very fortunate to have a job right now when other people are losing them.” If people think they’re more valuable, they should go out into the marketplace and “you may find out you’re not worth what you think you are,” he said.
“When things return to a normal, we’ll take a COLA [cost of living adjustment] if it is available,” Smith said.
Fulkerson described himself as a fiscal conservative and noted that he opposed raises in three of the last four years. He said it was hard deciding what to do with employee compensation this year.
“It’s real easy to sit up here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m against a COLA,’” Fulkerson said, but amid a hiring freeze that’s decreased the number of county employees in several offices, “the ones that are left are working harder.” He also noted that the new one-time bonuses don’t commit any spending in the future — and he praised county employees for carefully managing their budgets last year.
While offering ideas on what he would trim from the county’s budget, Mangold said he would want to look for ways to raise revenue before making cuts. Mangold suggested that finding a way to get the City of Powell to bring its trash to Cody instead of Billings could theoretically bring $370,000 to the county’s landfill fund. He also mentioned the idea of using vacant offices at the Park County Complex in Cody as an incubator space — helping new businesses get started in the short term while getting some money to help pay county bills.
Fulkerson noted that the county is currently exploring the idea of selling off part of the sprawling grounds that surround the complex to raise some money and is planning to sell off the property that now houses the Park County drug court program.
Smith said one solution for additional revenue is to simply “get more taxpayers — more people working, more people paying taxes.”
Asked to weigh in on the COVID-19 pandemic and the county’s response, Smith said the disease “is a hard thing to describe: There’s so much information and misinformation out there.” He hasn’t been wearing a mask in his role as a custodian at the complex, “but if the county health department deems that it’s best that we should wear masks, then we will do it,” Smith said.
Mangold said that masks “have been turned into a political movement” with people being shamed for not wearing or even wearing masks.
He said businesses should be allowed to require patrons to wear masks if they want to protect their employees that way, but said he opposes rules from public health officials that carry criminal penalties.
“If you’re not elected to a position, and if it doesn’t go through the proper channels, I don’t believe that they should be able to levy fines to you or to actually threaten you with jail time,” Mangold said to applause in Powell.
Fulkerson said the county government’s COVID-19 plan allows its departments to create their policies, not requiring masks but encouraging social distancing. He noted it’s a difficult issue to manage when some people see the pandemic as really important and others don’t care.
“You have to treat each individual with respect, and that’s what we encourage our department heads and all of our employees [to do],” he said, adding that the biggest goal was to “make sure the public feels comfortable” at county facilities.
Fulkerson said he’s “very optimistic” about how Park County will look in five years, but called it a “pollyanna view” to think that things will get better in a year or two.
“I think Park County and the State of Wyoming are really going to have to make some tough decisions in the next two years,” he said. “I see us hitting rock bottom in the next two years and then coming out of it.”
Fulkerson said he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and continue working hard on the commission to get through the tough times.
Smith, who previously served in a county commission-like position in Ohio in the 1980s along with many different job experiences, said he could bring a fresh and outside-the-box perspective while making good, hard decisions.
Mangold cited the work he’s done as mayor and now as a city councilor in Powell and said he “could be a voice to let you know exactly what the Park County commissioners are doing.” He also urged the audience in Cody to not “be afraid of a Powell person” going on the commission.
Smith, Mangold, Fulkerson and Livingston will face off in the Aug. 18 Republican primary. The top two candidates will advance to November’s general election where, as things currently stand, they’ll be unopposed. Video footage of the two forums are available on the Park County Republican Women Facebook page.