Voters will likely be asked to consider new 1% sales tax

Posted 6/4/20

This fall, Park County voters will most likely be asked to approve a new, 1% sales and use tax to help bolster the county and municipal governments.

Elected leaders in Powell, Cody, Meeteetse and …

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Voters will likely be asked to consider new 1% sales tax

Posted

This fall, Park County voters will most likely be asked to approve a new, 1% sales and use tax to help bolster the county and municipal governments.

Elected leaders in Powell, Cody, Meeteetse and the county government say they’re having a harder and harder time maintaining critical infrastructure — like roads, bridges and sewer systems — due to dwindling revenues and rising costs.

“We’ve cut things to the bone and we need new revenue sources,” Park County Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said Tuesday, speaking of the county’s plight.

At least two of the three municipalities plus the county commissioners must vote to put the 1% general purpose tax on November’s general election ballot, but that appears to be a near certainty.

The Cody City Council unanimously passed a formal resolution on Tuesday night to send the general purpose tax to voters.

“This is what we need,” Cody Mayor Matt Hall said in an interview.

Hall said the city has dropped its staffing back to some of the lowest levels in years and plans to cut its budget by 17 to 20% for the coming fiscal year, anticipating a drop in sales taxes and other revenue amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone’s thought process is like, let’s put it to the voters, let’s try and show them what we’re up against as far as how to fund our general fund operations,” Hall said. “And hopefully they’ll grant us a little bit of extra money so we can continue to plow the streets, improve the streets and keep the investments in our public safety and just the city government going.”

The measure will be considered by Meeteetse Town Council, Powell City Council and Park County Commission later this month.

At a recent meeting, representatives from the three councils and the commission were reportedly unanimous in agreeing that the tax should be put before voters this year.

Commissioners said there was a lot of discussion about whether now is the right time to seek a new tax, given the pandemic and the blow it’s struck to the economy.

“I think we all feel it,” said Commissioner Dossie Overfield. “We just don’t know what the [other] options are.”

Unlike a specific purpose tax, which ends when a specific amount of money is raised for a predetermined list of projects, a general purpose tax lasts a specified period of time and whatever funds are raised can be used for any governmental purpose.

In this case, the tax would end in four years, at the end of 2024. When Park County residents approved a 1% tax a few years ago, it wound up raising more than $7 million per year for local governments, though actual collections from this proposed tax will depend on sales.

While there will be no strings attached to the funds, county commissioners said Tuesday that they want a substantial chunk of the new revenue to go toward large capital projects, such as bridge replacements.

“I don’t want to see this pass and then have Park County spend up to that [amount] just because we got it,” said Commissioner Lee Livingston.

Hall said the city’s intent would be to focus on public safety, such as perhaps streets projects and adding another school resource officer to the Cody Police Department.

The resolution now making its way through the governing bodies specifically references “critical infrastructure systems.”

Commission Chairman Joe Tilden complimented the county on being proactive in proposing the new tax, “because the writing’s on the wall.” The state and county governments have relied on the oil and gas industry for tax revenue “forever,” but “it’s just not there anymore,” Tilden said.

Commissioners got on board with seeking a new 1% tax after the county’s months-long search for ways to close a roughly $2 million budget shortfall came up well short.

“That sort of brought it [the general purpose tax] up to the top of the heap,” Tilden said.

Fulkerson said the question for voters is whether they want the same quality of life.

“I would support it [the tax] if the voters want to continue the services that we have offered by the county right now,” said Commissioner Lloyd Thiel. “Otherwise, without it, there’s going to be some cuts. There has to be.”

The county has nearly $15.18 million in savings, but “it’s not as big as we think,” Thiel said. Much of that money is needed for operating capital to pay everyday bills throughout the year and the county also wants money available for projects and other opportunities that arise.

Local voters approved a $13.68 million specific purpose tax in 2016, which raised the county’s sales tax rate from 4% to 5% from April 1, 2017, to April 1, 2019. That tax passed with roughly 53% of local voters in support.

As for this year’s election, Commissioner Livingston said he knows there are people adamantly opposed to any new taxes, but he’s also heard from “a lot” of people who believe the county needs to consider it.

“Everyone should have the right to voice their opinion — and they can do that on the ballot box on this,” Livingston said.

(Editor's note: This version removes incorrect information about how much money the proposed tax might raise per year and adds a number from past performance. It also corrects the amount of money in the county's reserves.)

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