Park County voters were of two minds on taxes in Tuesday’s general election.
The 1-cent general purpose sales tax failed by a wide margin, while the 4% county lodging tax sailed through by an even wider margin.
Park County residents will not be taxed a fifth penny for the next four years as the 1% general purpose tax was rejected by voters with a 61%-39% vote.
In 2016, Park County voters supported a 1% specific purpose vote by a 50%-45% margin.
The last general purpose tax asked of voters was in 2012, which lost by a slightly better margin.
What a 1% general purpose tax does in contrast to a specific purpose is allow governments to use tax revenue towards the general fund.
Now, City of Cody and Park County elected officials will have some difficult decisions to make as far as their budgets.
“I’m a little disappointed about what happened,” Cody Mayor Matt Hall said. “But I’m pleased with what we did. I think it gave people some things to think about.”
The city was 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, and extending Cougar Avenue to the east of Freedom Street, among other projects.
The Park County commissioners have said employee cuts and reduction of services would be very likely if the tax did not pass. They were planning on using the money for a variety of infrastructure projects and covering future budget shortfalls.
“I am very disappointed the citizens don’t trust us to spend their dollars wisely,” commission chairman Joe Tilden said.
Hall said he wasn’t sure if the economic downturn hurt the tax’s chances of passing or if choosing the tax as a general brought about its demise.
“That was one of the counterarguments we heard, a lot … it might have done stronger in year everyone isn’t struggling,” he said.
A political action committee, A Penny for Park County, was rebooted for the 2020 general election. The group focused much of its advertising on Facebook, with endorsements from county and city officials, State Sen. Hank Coe and local constituents featured on the page, along with slogans, “Give Change a Chance,” and “General Purpose Does Not Mean Unspecific.” A Penny for Park County hired a Lander firm to help with its marketing campaign.
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.
Hall said the city will be“fine” and will be able to rely on its existing infrastructure. The challenge, he said, will lie in new projects and programs.
“When it comes around to do the budget, we’ll have to look at cuts and try to do that in a thoughtful and considerate way,” he said.
Despite a late surge of ads against the measure, proponents of the Park County 4% lodging tax were still able to shepherd through a renewal of the tax for the next four years with a wide margin.
When the votes were counted, 71.89% (11,560) supported the tax while 28.11% (4,521) opposed it.
In 2016 it passed 77-18%.
“It was a smaller margin than what we typically see, but it just goes to show that we did do a good job of explaining to the voters a very complicated issue,” said Cody Chamber Executive Director Tina Hoebelheinrich, who helped support the measure. “I am thrilled. I thought it was a very complicated issue. We had some opposition from folks, and I’m appreciative of Travel Council executive director Claudia Wade who did a lot of education.”
She said the plan of support, with help from the Cody Country PAC, was in place prior to a series of ads attacking the tax came out, but once that happened they did add a larger digital campaign.
In the last session in Cheyenne, legislators approved a statewide lodging tax that goes into effect Jan. 1 and provides 3% to the state office of tourism for statewide campaigns with 2% to be returned to county travel councils.
In 2020 though, voters were asked on the ballot to approve a 4% lodging tax to fund local marketing efforts.
Now that’s it’s approved, the state then will only take the 3% – meeting the mandated cap of a 7% lodging tax. If it hadn’t been approved, the state would’ve collected 5% and returned 2% to the county. That would’ve halved the funding for the Park County Travel Council, Wade said.