CASPER – Voters this election cycle will be asked to make a decision about amending the Wyoming state Constitution. The amendment, called Amendment A, deals with how much debt municipalities can incur for sewage projects. The issue comes down to an old law and how water utilities in the state should be regulated.
The amendment removes a debt limit for sewage projects imposed on municipalities by the Wyoming Constitution.
The state constitution limits the amount of debt municipalities are allowed to take on to 4% of the value of taxable property within the municipality, while carving out an exception for sewage disposal and water systems. The exception for sewage systems allows an additional 4% debt to be incurred, but water systems are completely exempt from the debt limit. The language in question can be found in Article 16, Section 5 of Wyoming’s constitution.
Sewer systems have evolved a lot since this section of the Wyoming Constitution was last updated in 1962. Those systems have also gotten more expensive to repair.
Casper City Manager Carter Napier said the law hasn’t advanced with the technology, and now the debt cap creates a barrier when municipalities face large repairs. The city of Casper, for example, needs to make $30 million in updates, repairs and improvements to its wastewater treatment plant.
But in order to make the repairs over the course of 10 years, the city will need to pay for a large portion of the project up front. Without $30 million in the bank, the city will likely need to incur some debt to offset the costs.
But with the current constitutional debt limit for sewage projects, the city would only be able to bond half of the $30 million project.
Napier argues because sewer systems and water systems both deal with Wyoming water, they should be treated similarly by the state.
Napier said if the city is unable to take on more debt to make repairs quickly, it will need to turn to the state (which is facing a budget crisis of its own), 1-cent sales tax money and/or an increase on ratepayers’ sewage costs. It would also extend the amount of time needed to pay for, and therefore complete, the repairs, making the process more expensive as well.
Napier said he thinks ratepayers would be better off if the city could incur some debt, rather than shifting the bulk of the burden to residents.
Napier said the one misconception he’s heard is that the amendment allows municipalities to impose new taxes on residents. This is not true. The amendment only lifts the debt cap for sewer projects and give the Wyoming Legislature authority to set a new cap. Amendment A is on ballots this general election.