In response to a more than $1.9 million county deficit and a lack of solutions to fully fill the gap, the Park County Commissioners have issued their first strong signs of support for a 1 percent general use sales tax that would be asked upon voters on the November 2020 ballot.
The tax would bring in more than $3 million annually for Park County government.
“I’ll be the first one leading that parade,” commissioner Joe Tilden said. “The county has got to have it if we want to maintain the services we provide today.”
Park and Sublette are the only two Wyoming counties to not currently have a fifth cent general purpose tax.
“We’re the only county as far as I’m concerned (that doesn’t have it),” Pat Meyer, Park County assessor said. “Sublette doesn’t count. They have $2.6 billion in valuation and they’ve got no people. Their reserves are $123 million.”
Currently, voters in Wyoming communities have the option to vote on the tax every two or four years. If approved it can be reauthorized on two or four year cycles.
When a general use tax was asked upon voters in 2012, nearly 61 percent opposed it.
“If people want us to maintain the services at the current level, we’re going to need to find some more money,” said Tilden, who did not support the 2012 tax.
The county deficit could be as much as $2.2-2.3 million for 2021 as a 2 percent cost of living adjustment on employees’ gross wages is being strongly considered for 2021.
But Meyer was also critical of how much money the county is keeping in reserves. In order to cover the deficit in July, the commissioners pulled $1.3 million from reserves, but more than $14 million still exists in that account.
“Every document I have says you should have no more than six months in reserves, which we have more than that now,” Meyer said. “Most people will have three months in there.”
Over the past six months, Tilden has been spearheading a budget committee to devise ways to cover the county’s money woes. Although many philosophical changes and ideas were presented, only about $1.5 million in direct savings were identified by the committee.
All of the commissioners voiced support for the fifth cent idea, but Lee Livingston said he would only vote for such a measure if it was clearly delineated that the money generated would be put into reserves.
“We would have to educate the voters on why we would be good stewards of those reserves,” chair Jake Fulkerson said.
Multiple commissioners like Lloyd Thiel said if a tax does not pass, county staff and services will be cut.
“I will not support (pulling from reserves) a deficit next year,” Thiel said.
But even if it were to pass, tax revenues would not go into effect until more than halfway through the 2021 fiscal cycle.
“It effects people’s lives,” Fulkerson said. “Either it’s employees or residents in the county that wake up on a Sunday and their road is not plowed because we’re not paying overtime.”
The commissioners and county staff seemed to express a lack of interest in asking voters again for a specific use capital tax. In 2016, the county approved that kind of tax with a 7,772-6,904 vote.
That tax was dispersed to Cody, Park County, Powell and Meeteetse for specifically designated projects. In Cody, $5 million was raised for a sewer lagoon upgrade project, crack and chip sealing to paved city streets and additional Americans with Disabilities Act ramps. Powell received $4.25 million for four blocks of road improvements on Absaroka Street and the county took in $2.43 million for road and bridge projects, and Meeteetse installed a new sewer pump station, sewer lift, sewers and electrical installation.
“The cap(ital) tax is great but it doesn’t really free that much money for our general fund,” Tilden said. “But if we were to receive $3 million a year from a general purpose fifth penny tax, we could plan years down the road for projects.”
Commissioner Dossie Overfield expressed worry a general use tax would have a harder time finding voter support if other local governments asked for their own specific purpose tax.
“I’m not sure you’re going to go to the voters with both of them,” she said.
A piece of legislation recently passed through the Wyoming Joint Committee on Revenue in November that would give county voters the option to permanently enact a fifth penny tax. The house will act on this bill in early 2020.
Library board member John Gordnier recommended the county emphasize its prior fiscal savviness in any marketing it may do for a fifth cent campaign. After a specific use tax was approved by voters in 2016, that tax completed six months earlier than projected.
“You need to show history,” Gordnier said. “You can make a decent argument that you’ve always been efficient with your expenditures.”
Brian Edwards, Park County engineer, also said the county needs to aggressively pursue all savings options before asking a tax.
“It’s a lot easier to look the taxpayer in the eye after we’ve made some of these other hard decisions,” Fulkerson said. “It could be a smaller workforce that we pay better.”
Thiel said it will take cut services for residents to buy into a new tax.
“Lines getting bigger downstairs, potholes not getting filled – then they may realize,” he said.
The county will have until April 2020 to decide if it wants to pull the trigger and put another tax on the ballot.