Cities and towns are terrified about their financial future especially when it comes to having a stable source of revenue. Years ago legislators removed direct funding to local governments, preferring instead to fund them on a bi-annual basis from the state general fund. But Lawmakers have been engaged in budget cuts and communities in particular fear they will lose their general fund money. One solution is to have the ability to raise their own revenue.
The pitched the idea during a recent meeting of the legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee. The committee has been tasked with finding ways to make up for major losses in state revenue that were caused by the downturn in Wyoming’s energy economy. But communities worry that instead of generating more state revenue, that their share of funding will be cut.
Two years ago Cities, Towns and Counties received $105 million dollars. The fear is that money will go away. Senator Dave Kinskey who represents Sheridan and Johnson counties says he likes the idea of having communities raise their own money.
“No, I like local government coming in and saying that we want to be self-sufficient. I mean that’s far better than saying let’s take money out of the state’s general fund. I was a mayor for ten years and I always believed that we wanted to do everything we could to take care of ourselves locally and avoid going to Cheyenne with our hand out.”
Letting communities raise their own money is being met with some mixed reaction. Laramie Representative Cathy Connolly worries that it could backfire leaving communities with inequitable funding, but she says she’s warming to the idea.
“I am honestly listening to our mayors and country commissioners when they’re about the ability to do necessary taxation in their own communities for certain services. “
Laramie Mayor Andi Summerville says her community can barely pay for street repairs now.
“If you want to see that impact I invite anybody to take a drive or bike ride down Ivinson and see what that street looks like. That street is probably about ten or 15 years due to be replaced and we simply don’t have the money.”
The proposals include having communities impose additional sales taxes, maybe restoring the sales tax on food, or community-based property taxes in addition to what the state provides. It could even mean that communities would be able to impose their own tobacco and liquor taxes. In other words, a number of options. Those changes would require legislation or as Casper City Manager Carter Napier puts it, necessary legislation.
“If we don’t have a diverse array of tools that communities can deal with, and that ranges in Wyoming from municipalities of a few hundred to municipalities of tens of thousands, it’s just critical that we have that diversity and we have those options and right now that’s just tough.”
Napier also argues for enhanced distributions to communities in the terms of sales tax and such things as mineral royalties.
“What I’m saying is having those adjusted where we have a more equitable share of that funding that’s already there, that to me is a real easy win.”
Unless you are somebody else in state government who was counting on that money. Right now lawmakers have been using various forms of revenue to balance the budget. Revenue Committee Chairman Mike Madden says that will need to continue until the state passes a tax.
“It involves stealing, not stealing, but diverting money from other recipients currently, to them. You know the kinds of things they want to do is make diversions into some of the revenue sources that we have been using and actually, in fact, depending upon.”
When it comes to having them raise their own revenue, Madden will consider the proposal to let individual communities raise their own sales and property taxes.
“Oh yeah, I think the property tax is entirely appropriate, I think we have a good chance of maybe seeing some of that happen, it’s long overdue, we see the expenses per capita, we just don’t see the payments per capita. That one is a good one.”
But while communities are pushing these ideas, counties are not. County Commissioners Association Director Pete Obermueller explained that they are prepared to work with the $105 million dollars they currently get.
“At least the County Commissioners today aren’t unified on whether or not the counties themselves need additional tax revenue other than the authority they already have. Now that may change over time and we recognize that unless we solve the education issue it will gobble all of us up. “
The revenue committee voted to support continuing that funding and chose to support drafting legislation giving communities the authority to raise a sales tax. The committee will vote on those ideas in December.