With the Park County commissioner’s unanimous approval given Tuesday, the county joined all of the municipalities in passing resolutions to explain how funds from the fifth penny general purpose tax would be spent if approved by voters in November.
Since the ballot cannot include specific projects to be used with the money, the resolution comes as close as possible to providing voters a formal list of projects, essentially a pledge to the voters, City of Cody Administrator Barry Cook said.
“The general can go anywhere and there is a perception among some people that we’re wasting money,” Cook said. “The (city) council wanted to make a pledge.”
What a 1% general purpose tax does in contrast to a specific purpose is allow governments to use tax revenue towards the general fund.
“We use a portion of this money for general day-to-day operations, but the bulk of it we set aside and prioritize for future uses,” Park County Commissioner Chairman Joe Tilden said.
The commissioners and members of the Cody City Council have stressed only a small portion of funds will be used for this purpose.
Although the Powell and Cody city councils gave a list of projects in their resolutions that tax revenue would be spent on, the county is choosing not to go that route.
“It is the view of our attorney that if we start saying specifics it turns into a cap(ital) tax,” commissioner Dossie Overfield said. “We don’t want to be specifically tied to those projects. We need to have the flexibility of a general versus a cap(ital) tax.”
Discussion of what verbiage to be used in the resolution to maintain flexibility took up most of the commissioners’ discussion on Tuesday. They struck the words “obligating” and “exclusively” from the draft resolution while adding the words “significant portion,” “supporting” and “primarily,” for the purpose of leaving a non-binding, suggested-type manner as to what can legally be done with the tax money.
“It’s us basically giving our word, this is what we’re going to do,” Commissioner Lee Livingston said.
The resolution itself is non-binding due to its involving a general purpose tax.
“If we don’t do what we say then the voters can not vote us back in,” Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said. “I know three of the five (commissioners) will be up for re-election in two years.”
Wyoming state statute also forbids municipalities and counties from expending revenues to market a tax to the general public.
“We can disseminate factual information, but we can’t advocate for a tax publicly,” Tilden said. “Privately I can say, ‘Yeah, you better vote for it.’”
Officials are allowed to “inform” the public about the tax and both city and county officials said public money will be spent on printing and man hours dedicated to the creation of educational materials.
A political action committee, A Penny for Park County, has been rebooted for the 2020 general election. This same PAC was used for marketing the specific purpose tax passed in 2016. PACs are considered private organizations and can expend funds and solicit donations as they see fit.
Where is it going?
Livingston said if the tax passes, he wants to see a significant portion set aside for large capital infrastructure projects.
“I do not want to see county government spending up to the increase in revenue,” he said.
With an annual revenue projected at $3.3-$3.4 million for the county, the tax would more than cover any shortfalls when it comes to general revenue in the county budget.
Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said there is $9.9 million in urgent work needed to be completed on bridges in just the next 5-10 years. The county manages 72 bridges, averaging about $1 million a piece to replace, Overfield said.
Bridge DDO in Meeteetse is being fixed this year while a bridge dating back to the 1930s on Road 6JM on the South Fork is also slated for work if not vacated. Overfield said if this bridge is vacated there are still about 50-60 other bridges waiting behind it that need work.
She listed this work – a new roof for the Powell Library, information and technology improvements, possibly having to replace the county’s phone system, as urgent expenses, “to just keep our general operating going.”
“Not really grow anything, keep the services that we have and keep moving,” she said.
Park County Clerk Colleen Renner said a recent printer outage caused a 45-minute delay before a solution was found for printing vehicle titles.
“Because all of our equipment is so old,” she said. “All of our desk computers are older than 10 years old.”
The commissioners are obligated by state statute to balance the budget.
“If they want to continue the services they have today in Park County, Wyoming, they need to think about voting in favor of it,” Tilden said.
Despite the Powell Library roof being on the list for considered projects, the Friends of the Powell Library said earlier in the meeting Tuesday they will be spending about $100,000 of their own money for an architectural design for a library extension.
Park County has about $14 million in reserves. Former commissioner Bucky Hall voiced his opinion on the matter at the meeting.
“I know it’s real difficult to take money out of the reserves, but it’s time,” he said.
In a recent advertisement, Scott Weber accused the City of Cody of misleading the public about keeping $23 million in reserves, well exceeding the intended purpose of a rainy day fund, he said.
“The last time it rained this much Noah built himself a boat,” Weber said.
The City of Cody does have $23 million in reserve accounts, however only about $2.4 million can be used freely. The rest is locked up in enterprise accounts that can only be used for specific purposes. Cody has four enterprise type funds; solid waste, water, wastewater and electric.
For instance, when a person pays fees to the electric department, law requires that those fees stay within that department.
“The City of Cody cannot charge you more for electricity so it can hire more police officers,” Cook said.
The City is planning on using the 1% revenue for keeping and hiring school resource officers, police car upgrades, building maintenance and upgrades, improvements to the Cody Senior Center, road and sidewalk improvements, extending Cougar Avenue to the east of Freedom Street, among other projects.
Powell has similar intended uses for their funds including law enforcement vehicle improvements; continued annual funding for Big Brothers Big Sisters, Youth Clubs of Park County, Caring for Powell Animals, Crisis Intervention, Powell Recreation District, Powell Senior Center; road and sidewalk improvements; and a splash pad.
If passed, the fifth penny would be asked of voters again in four years.
While only 33% of the current sales and use tax is returned to counties and municipalities, 99% of the fifth penny tax revenue will return to the local governments. According to the Wyoming Department of Tourism, it is estimated that about 37% of a fifth penny tax in Park County would be paid by tourists.
The average household income in Park County is $50,000. Based on a 2014 formula provided by the State of Wyoming Office of Economic Analysis, the average impact of an additional 1 cent sales tax on that household income would be $80 per year.