Government leaders say additional 1% sales tax is needed, but voters will decide

Posted 10/29/20

If Park County voters reject an additional 1% sales tax next week, local governments say they can expect to see worse customer service and fewer services. It could also shelve plans for a new Powell …

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Government leaders say additional 1% sales tax is needed, but voters will decide

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If Park County voters reject an additional 1% sales tax next week, local governments say they can expect to see worse customer service and fewer services. It could also shelve plans for a new Powell Library and strain government employees who already feel overworked, Park County commissioners have indicated.

Without the added tax dollars, “it’s getting clear to me ... that we’re not going to have the money for fully staffed departments. That’s all there is to it,” Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said last week.

He made the remarks after hearing from a pair of stressed department heads about how their offices are falling further and further behind.

“We absolutely cannot catch up at this point,” County Planning Director Joy Hill said, adding that she’s hurting physically and medically because of the amount of work.

“The quality of our work life right now is terrible. It’s terrible,” she said.

County Engineer Brian Edwards, meanwhile, told commissioners he was worried about losing good people because of how burdened his office is. Without restoring a position that was cut from full- to half-time, “we aren’t going to be able to get you what you’re used to getting from us,” Edwards said.

Tilden sympathized, but, he said, “if we don’t get some additional revenue, things aren’t going to change.”

The Park County Commission, Powell and Cody city councils and the Meeteetse Town Council have asked voters to consider approving a 1% general purpose sales tax in Tuesday’s general election; it would raise Park County’s sales tax rate from 4 to 5% for the next four years. Based on recent collections, the measure would bring in somewhere around $7 million a year, with officials estimating that between 30 to 40% of the tax is paid by tourists.

The sales tax dollars are divided among the local governments by population. With more residents living in rural Park County, the county government would get the largest share, at around $3.4 million.

  

‘A Penny For Park County’

Private citizens have re-formed a political action committee called, “A Penny For Park County,” to encourage voters to pass the new 1% tax. The group hired a Lander-based PR firm to help with the effort while creating a website (http://pennyforparkcounty.org), a Facebook page, ads including mailers and video testimonials to boost the cause.

In a news release, members of the penny PAC contended that the optional general purpose sales tax is especially needed now, to maintain necessary services amid budget cuts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During my 10 years on [Cody] city council I saw revenues decline but the demand for basic services did not,” former Councilman Stan Wolz said in the release. “The city has resolved to spend the penny on essentials. Let’s take care of ourselves and pass it.”

Unlike a specific purpose tax — such as the one passed in 2016 to fund a series of infrastructure projects around the county — the governments are free to spend a general purpose tax however they choose. But local leaders have pledged to use the dollars wisely and shared their plans for the funds.

Both the cities of Powell and Cody put together lists of the projects and expenses they have in mind. In Powell, the council said it would continue funding groups like the Youth Clubs of Park County, repair Seventh Street around Northwest College and build a new splash pad.

Meanwhile, Cody Mayor Matt Hall said his city would use the new revenue to maintain the police department staff, hire a school resource officer for Cody Middle School and help sustain the city’s parks and recreation department, repair infrastructure and maintain public facilities.

Park County commissioners say infrastructure projects would be a priority, but they decided not to list any specific items.

The county has $7.9 million worth of road and bridge projects that will need to be addressed in the coming years, Commissioner Dossie Overfield said at an Oct. 6 meeting. However, “that doesn’t count the clerk’s office and IT; that doesn’t count the phone system we talked about [possibly failing],” Overfield said. “There’s just so many things out there that we right now can’t afford to pay for.”

For that reason, the commissioners left it fairly open-ended as to how the county might use the new tax dollars. Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said the county is “going to need a portion of it just for day-to-day operations,” amid what county officials have described as a roughly $2 million gap between revenue and expenditures this budget year.

With the tax estimated to bring in about $3.4 million annually, Thiel suggested that would leave $1-$1.5 million that could be dedicated to county roads, bridges, a new Powell Library and other “things that need to be done.”

Chairman Tilden agreed that, “We’ve decided that whenever possible we’re going to use this money for infrastructure needs.”

Overfield added that the intent is not to grow government and to keep the budget as tight as possible.

   

‘A tough road’

At a candidate forum in late July, Powell City Councilman and Park County Commission candidate Scott Mangold said the City of Powell has a balanced budget and “doesn’t need” the tax. However, in a recent video recorded for “A Penny for Park County,” Mangold encouraged voters to “think long and hard” about the proposal.

Amid tight budget times, Cody councilors recently debated whether they could afford to host a Christmas parade while the Town of Meeteetse is talking about raising utility fees if the 1% tax doesn’t pass, Mangold said.

“I think it’s time that we start paying for our own instead of asking for the state” to provide funding, he said in the video, throwing his support behind the tax.

Unlike past years, there’s no PAC formally advocating against the measure, but judging by the comments on the “A Penny for Park County” Facebook page, there’s plenty of opposition.

“No way I would vote for more taxes, even a penny!” Powell resident Edward Vaiskauskas wrote in one recent comment.

“No taxes for general uses,” added Powell businessman Brent Foulger on another post, “learn to budget.”

The remarks were representative of the general anti-tax sentiment that the PAC’s posts have drawn on Facebook.

“It’s a tough road,” former Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall said of the tax’s chances with Park County voters. “Who knows? Like a wise commissioner told me once when I was in office, the people are probably going to have to suffer before they’ll vote for this.”

The last time that local governments sought a 1% general purpose sales tax, in November 2012, just over 60% of voters shot it down.

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