The Park County Commissioners support asking voters for a fifth cent general purpose tax.
With the Cody City Council giving its sign-off Tuesday night, either Powell or Meeteetse councils must give a thumbs up next week before the resolution returns to the commissioners for a final OK.
On Tuesday, the commissioners gave their unanimous vocal support for the resolution, but they cannot vote on it until at least two of the county’s three municipalities pass the resolution first.
The resolution must have the same language throughout the county.
One aspect of the drafted resolution the commissioners nixed Tuesday was that if passed, the proposition would be asked upon voters at every election until defeated.
“There’s definitely a precedent of counties in Wyoming of having this in place permanently and that’s not my intent,” said commissioner Jake Fulkerson.
If passed the tax would begin on Jan. 1, 2021 and expire on Dec. 31, 2024.
The commissioners plan to vote on the resolution June 16.
Chair Joe Tilden said he wants the opportunity to prove the county can be trusted stewards of the taxpayers’ money by being as transparent as possible leading up to the November election and in its spending of the taxpayers’ money, if approved.
Barb Poley, Park County treasurer, said it may be possible to give the public the opportunity to check in with the county and see exactly how the tax money is being spent on a daily basis.
“It’s my intention to do everything I can, if reelected, to make sure a big chunk of that is earmarked for big projects,” commissioner Lee Livingston said.
Livingston said he wishes a list of capital projects a portion of the tax would be used on could be included in the election ballot, but county staff advised against this.
“With a specific purpose tax you’re held to that project,” Poley said. “You don’t want to be tied down to a certain project.”
What the general purpose tax allows the county and its municipalities is the flexibility to use some revenue towards budget shortfalls, rather than solely specific projects. Park County officials have said they would use the roughly $3.2 million in annual tax revenue for both projects and towards its general budget.
In contrast to the specific purpose tax that was passed by voters in 2016 and recently expired, the general purpose tax will generate a much smaller benefit to the town of Meeteetse because its disbursements are based on population. Meeteetse would only receive about $75,000 annually after getting about $2.1 million from the specific purpose tax.
Based on 2018 revenue projections, Cody could receive $2.5 million per year while Powell could garner $1.6 million annually.
Unlike the specific purpose tax, the general purpose runs for four years with no cap on what is generated. Projections based on 2018 tax revenue show the county and municipalities could raise $29.5 million over four years, but Poley said the recent downturn in the economy could reduce sales tax revenue 10-20%. The 2016 specific purpose tax generated about $14.7 million.
Tilden said bringing the tax to the ballot has been a discussion for more than a year, but the idea really gained traction when his Park County budget committee started meeting late last summer and fall.
“That made us all aware of the basic situation we’re in today,” he said. “It was a unanimous decision at our last meeting, sort of informally, that we all go for the general purpose tax rather than the specific purpose tax.”
The budget committee had been tasked with finding solutions to cover a $1.9 million county deficit.
One other source of revenue that could come forth to the county in the next few years is selling off land at the Park County Complex off Stampede Avenue in Cody. On Tuesday, Fulkerson presented three parcels totaling 7.1 of the more than 22 acres existing on the county-owned property that could be sold off to the public. These would likely be sold separately and would need to be approved for subdivision by the City of Cody before any transaction could occur.
Although the county does have $14 million in reserves, Commissioner Lloyd Thiel argued this money is used extensively for operating expenses throughout the year.
State statute requires that counties balance their budget each year to make revenues match expenses. With collections not starting on the potential tax until early 2021, the county will likely have to make some cuts to cover the ninth-month period before money would hit its coffers.
Tilden lamented the lack of progress State of Wyoming legislatures have made towards finding new sources of revenue for the state as part of the reason for the county’s current budget situation.
“I do fault the state for not finding new, out-of-the-paradigm ways for finding revenue. They refuse to even look at it,” he said. “The State of Wyoming and in particular Park County … we’ve ridden on the backs of oil and gas forever and it’s just not there anymore.”
Thiel said there was unanimous support among the county’s three municipalities and the commissioners to present the tax to the voters.
“I would support it if the voters want to continue the services offered by the county right now,” he said. “Otherwise, without it, there’s going to be some cuts, there has to be.”
But with the recent downturn in the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commissioners did say there was some major hesitation when it came to initiating the tax.
“I think we all feel it, we just don’t know what the options are,” commissioner Dossie Overfield said.
Fulkerson expressed support for the tax.
“We all moved here and stay here because of the quality of life. I would like to maintain that quality of life,” he said.
For Livingston, putting the resolution on the ballot is a matter of democracy.
“Everyone should have the right to voice their opinion and they can at the ballot box on this,” Livingston said.
The county will start finalizing its fiscal outlook over the course of the next month with a final reading of the 2020/21 budget at a July 6 special commissioner meeting. The commissioners will host budget review hearings June 15 and June 23 in addition to regular meetings.
Poley said since the county receives its revenue numbers about two months behind the actual expenditure, it is on target for the current fiscal year. Next year, however, is the big question mark. She said she typically takes an average of the past four years to create a projection, but will not do so this year.
“Next year, we just don’t know,” she said.
She said the State of Wyoming is projecting a 20-30% drop in revenue with many other counties around the state following suit.
Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council, said she anticipates lodging tax revenues being 50% or less of the $3.1 million that was raised last year.