Park County residents faced a lot of uncertainty in those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some businesses had restrictions, and others had to close for a while. For a while, it seemed the county …
Park County residents faced a lot of uncertainty in those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some businesses had restrictions, and others had to close for a while. For a while, it seemed the county economy would see a long period of stagnation.
Elsewhere in the country, especially in big cities, there was rising crime, regulatory burdens, and far more restrictive public health orders. More people started to look elsewhere for a better way of life.
Park County became home to an influx of people buying up homes and property. This led to concerns about water resource management and permitting, and the influx of new residents kept the housing market red hot, which sent valuations — and subsequently property taxes — soaring.
The challenges stemming from the county’s growing population are the subject of the campaigns of candidates for the Park County Commission.
Three seats are open and eight candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for them. All are running as Republicans.
Ken Montgomery is one of the candidates. He said the problem with the property tax issue is that the commissioners’ response was reactive rather than proactive. He said he believes the commissioners should have been working with legislators and the governor before this year’s evaluations dropped the increase on property owners.
“Frankly, our leaders were caught flat footed,” Montgomery said.
He said that if he were elected, he would pursue a grandfather property tax rate, which means people would pay taxes based on what they purchased the home for rather than the current valuations, with perhaps some inflationary increase.
One of the reasons incumbent Lloyd Thiel decided to run for a second term is his desire to see that young Park County residents have the same opportunities to build businesses and raise families that he has in the nearly 49 years he’s lived in the county.
After more than 30 years as Park County Sheriff, Scott Steward is now running for the commission, but he said there’s more for the board to consider than growth management. While land use and property taxes are important issues, Steward said, “We can’t get wrapped up in only these issues and lose sight of the others, such as personal property rights, constitutional rights and our freedoms to enjoy our public lands.”
Angie Johnson, who has served as clerk treasurer for the town of Meeteetse since 2003, is also concerned with making sure the land use plan, which the county is currently updating, will incorporate public input that county officials have received through a series of public forums held this year throughout the county. She also has an eye on the rising costs of real estate and rentals in the county.
“Cost of living and affordable housing are also topics to be involved with in the future,” Johnson said.
When Park County residents received their property tax bills this year, they saw, in some cases, jumps as high as 40% over last year. This is a topic all the candidates expressed concern about.
Tyson Williams, who owns a Cody heavy equipment company, thinks that with county revenues driving surpluses, the commissioners should consider adjusting the mill levy to offer residents some relief from tax burdens.
H. Keith Dahlem said he would suspend property taxes until “they or [sic] imposed fairly on all of Park Counties [sic] population and everyone pays their fair share.”
Matt Scott, owner of Great Scott Construction in Cody, said he’s concerned how the property taxes impact retirees on fixed incomes.
“I would hate to have situations arise where people have to move because they cannot afford taxes,” Scott said in a May interview.
The second incumbent in the race, Dossie Overfield, points out that any action to address property taxes will need to come from legislators, and she will be working with them to see what can be done. However, she worries that flat limitations on how much taxes can increase over the previous year might prevent the county from catching up. So if limits are not rising with inflation, it could have a lasting impact on county revenues.
In February, Park County officials initiated an effort to update the county’s land use plan, which hasn’t seen an update since 1998.
As a first step, county officials held community meetings to gather input from residents, property owners, business owners, and other community stakeholders on what should be incorporated into the plan.
Hundreds of comments were submitted. The plan, when complete, will inform the county commission as future regulations are developed.
Water resource management is a big part of that. Much of the water infrastructure in the county is based on agricultural irrigation, and now as subdivisions are spreading over land that used to be used to raise crops, the commission will need to figure out how to manage the county’s water resources.
If reelected, Overfield, who spent over 20 years working for the Northwest Rural Water District, said she’ll be lending her expertise to those questions. She also wants the new plan to be in line with the spirit of the input county officials received from residents.
Overfield added that she wants to update the language in existing regulations to be clear and concise, making them easier for county residents to follow.
For Montgomery, the key to managing growth is having a good vision.
“Have any of the commissioners given you a clear vision for the potential of Park County?...Without knowing where you’re going, how can you possibly get there?” Montgomery asked.
Steward said that during his years in law enforcement, he was directly involved in conflicts over easements, water rights, fencing, and subdivisions.
“I feel that, with the growth that Park County is experiencing, I bring an insight that no other candidate for commissioner has,” he said.
Thiel said it’s important that the county, in developing its land use plan, be sure to properly balance the need to manage growth with property rights.
“Independence and private property rights are the main reason people are moving here, and it is important not to overregulate and jeopardize the values that make Park County a great place to live,” Thiel said.
Most of the candidates expressed a commitment to property rights.
Johnson said she wants to see the plan developed in line with community input and with an eye toward what is best for all residents of Park County.
In the crowded race, the candidates distinguish themselves with their expertise, their vision, and their experience.
Besides her knowledge of the water issues that will accompany growth management in the county, Overfield pointed to her experience serving on the council. Previously, she worked as an office assistant in the commissioners’ office, and she’s served on a number of community boards, including the Park County School District 6 board.
Steward spoke of his proven leadership capabilities and experience.
“As a lifelong resident of 55 years, and my experience with the sheriff’s office, I feel it gives me a great institutional knowledge of Park County. I have proven leadership and have always been open and accessible to the public,” Steward said.
Montgomery, who is from California, concedes his bid for a spot on the commission, as a new resident, is an uphill battle, but he speaks with an optimism for the future of Park County.
“I’ve talked to literally hundreds of people and almost every business in Powell and Ralston. I’ve listened. I’ve seen the hope in young people’s eyes and the wish for a brighter future for them in our elders’ eyes,” Montgomery said, adding that he’d donate his commissioner’s salary.
Johnson cited an extensive experience in public service, which grants her experience in budgeting, program administration, strategic planning, and grant management.
“I serve in multiple leadership roles and on a number of community and state boards. I understand population growth is inevitable and have the experience in carefully planning for a future that protects our western heritage, and the qualities we love about Park County,” she said.
Dahlem said, “As a lifelong resident of Park County, I understand the innerworking of the county, and I can milk a cow and know how to use the business end of a shovel.”
Matt Scott bolstered his bid for the commission with his science degree, as well as his experience running a construction company and working in the financial industry. He said if he were elected, these would bring a “unique perspective” to the commission.
Williams, a business owner and father of three, said as a commissioner he’d ensure election integrity and property rights.
Thiel said that in addition to his experience serving on the commission, his more than three decades running his own business and working in construction will continue to benefit the residents of Park County.
“I value hard work, honesty and problem solving. My values and experience will be very important when making the best decisions for the people of Park County,” he said.