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State mining sector raking in sales tax dollars compared to 2016, but Natrona County unemployment exceeds other counties

Wyoming’s economy continues to rock to a standstill, according to a November snapshot of the state’s improving tax revenue and unemployment rates.

The state’s triple bust in its key fossil fuel sectors upset employment, income and state revenue over the last two years. But the November numbers evidence a slow stabilization, economist say.

The turnaround in sales and use tax income from the mining sector, a 72 percent increase from last November is the largest recorded gain on record, according to the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division.

The price of crude, one of the benchmarks to gauge the health of Wyoming’s economy, has improved and remained stable.

Earlier in the year, the price wavered between $45 and $50 a barrel. That range has shifted up to $55 to $60, said Jim Robinson, state economist.

Mining employment, including coal, oil and gas, has remained stable over the last few months, hinting that whatever industry demand for workers exists since the price improvements is met, he said. Job losses in 2017 were still significant, he said, but improved from last year.

“We are not quite where we were, but we are working our way back in that direction,” he said.

The state’s unemployment rate is down to 4.3 percent, compared to November of last year of 4.9 percent, the tail end of a severe slump in coal, oil and gas, according to the Department of Workforce Services.

Natrona County’s drop in unemployment is not quite as strong as the narrowing gap in coal-rich Campbell County or gas-centric Sublette County.

In the heart of Wyoming’s oil and gas service industry, unemployment remains at about 5.1 percent, down from 6.2 percent a year ago.

Campbell’s unemployment rate is down from 6 percent to 4.3 percent. Sublette is down to 4.2 percent compared to 5.2 percent in November 2016.

It may be that the Casper area is holding onto its workers, particularly the younger working populations, simply because it has more to offer, said Wenlin Liu, a state economist.

“Younger workers may leave an area with small population more quickly after losing jobs than in bigger cities,” he said in an email.

County comparisons are not apples to apples, said Tony Glover, manager of the Research and Planning division of the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division.

The unemployment figures aren’t adjusted for predictable changes in the regional employment by season. Teton County, which did not get hit by the economic downturn in fossil fuels, had the highest unemployment rate in the state in November, up from 3 percent in October.

There are other variances that impact the numbers, said Glover.

In Campbell County, the labor force appears to have contracted more than in Natrona, he said. There are simply fewer people that are actively looking for work but unable to find a job, he said.

Fewer unemployed are not necessarily a sign that people are back at work, he said.

Unemployment in counties with an economy based on fossil fuel industries have improved as people have left the state, found new work or stopped looking, he said.

Wyoming has lost 6,500 residents since 2015, the biggest drop since the years following the ‘80s oil bust.

The number of unemployed workers in Campbell County still seeking benefits is down by 74 percent from 2016, according to state records. Natrona has about 56 percent fewer people continuing their unemployment benefits.

“My guess is that Natrona County has for the most part lost the jobs from mining that they are going to lose,” Robinson said. “Whether or not there are still some families that are still trying to find a job, I don’t know.”

An earlier version of this article had incorrect statewide sales and use tax data. Wyoming sales and use taxes increased by about 16 percent from 2016 to 2017. The mining sector alone increased by 72 percent. 

Casper Police Department
New chief outlines 2018 priorities for Casper Police Department

City leaders are looking to the Casper Police Department to start fresh in 2018 with a new chief implementing recommendations from an outside review of the department.

Chief Keith McPheeters said Friday that among his top priorities are responding to sexual assaults, increasing department staffing levels and clearing a backlog of evidence. The priorities are part of a “rough draft” plan for the department that McPheeters drew up after consultation with his command staff and examining the findings from the outside review.

The review was commissioned by Casper City Council in April at the request of V.H. McDonald, who was city manager at the time, and Jim Wetzel, who was then police chief. The two men hoped the report would complement the development of the department’s five-year strategic plan.

In the month between McDonald’s request for the report and Council’s approval of the expenditure, McDonald unexpectedly announced his retirement and his interim replacement terminated police chief Jim Wetzel’s contract after internal turmoil at the department became public.

The contractor handling the review, the Center for Public Safety Management, delivered the report in October and the city manager’s office released it to the public Oct. 27. The report ended up costing the city nearly $35,000, well under an initial estimate of $63,550.

The responsibility for implementation of the suggestions in the report now falls to McPheeters, who took over the department in December. The suggestions are non-binding, and City Manager Carter Napier has said it is possible not all of the recommendations will be instituted.

“We’re still in a period of transition,” Napier said.

Goals in the new year

McPheeters said the department had already made headway on the issue of sexual assault before he arrived and he aims to continue that change.

The chief said the department was working on instituting a “philosophical shift” that will better prepare its officers to respond to sexual assaults. In January, some officers will attend a “train-the-trainer” program in Phoenix. Those officers will then train the rest of the department so that every employee, including non-sworn staff, will be trained in victim-centric and trauma-informed responses to sexual assault.

McPheeters said the department will be instituting a “much more aggressive” recruiting campaign to more fully staff the department, with an emphasis on patrol officer positions. That campaign is set to kick off in early January.

In speaking about what they expected for the police department in 2018, two City Council members and the city manager emphasized their support for the new chief.

After expressing her support for the top cop, Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay said she hopes the department addresses issues related to the handling of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Huckabay, who has been a frequent critic of the department in her time on City Council, said she was disappointed the chief did not address sexual assault or domestic violence in a mid-December interview with the Star-Tribune. The department reviewed its sexual assault policy last spring after a number of women criticized the way the department handled sexual assault cases.

“I think all this came about because of those issues,” Huckabay said on Thursday. “I hope we can get some changes done. Not only in appearance (but in) practice.”

McPheeters was not specifically asked about the department’s sexual assault response in the mid-December interview. He said in that interview that he was still consulting with his command staff to prioritize the department’s implementation of the report.

Huckabay said she would also like to see the department continue to focus on a community policing paradigm, wherein police and citizens partner in the policing process.

“We’re not a huge dangerous crime-infested community,” the councilwoman said. “It’ll take some time for him to get in there and really affect the culture.”

Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco, who is slated to become mayor on Jan. 9, said he would like a continuation of an open dialogue between the department and community. Although the City Council stepped up its interaction with the department during and following last spring’s tumult, he thinks it’s more important that the department connect with common citizens than speak to Council.

Plans already underway

Some of the recommendations from the outside review have already been instituted.

A new chief was installed, a sergeant has been promoted to lieutenant and two officers were named sergeant since the report was delivered. A veteran sergeant will be joining the investigations division in the new year, adding a supervisor to an understaffed division. Those changes are in keeping with the report’s recommendations to fill holes in the command staff.

The department also underwent an ambitious public relations campaign this fall. Termed “Our Community,“ the campaign aims to connect officers with the community they serve by hosting public change-of-shift briefings, making more use of foot and bike patrols downtown, participating in National Coffee With a Cop Day and more frequent appearances at community events. The effort also focuses on being more sensitive to the needs of domestic violence and sexual assault victims. The department opened a new “soft interview room” this fall to help victims feel safer while talking to investigators. Officers are also receiving new training for interviewing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The report recommended increasing community engagement and better handling of sexual assault.

McPheeters said he plans to continue the community-oriented approach. He called for citizens to “actively engage” the police department. He said he would like citizens to partner with the department to help fight crime, improve the quality of life and lower the cost of living in Casper.

Napier also cited community engagement as a crime-fighting tool he would like to see continued.

It’s already been paying off, Napier said: “The community’s confidence in the department is growing.”

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Workers construct a steel skid destined for the oil fields on Thursday at Double D Welding and Fabrication in west Casper.

Lots of talk, little action on taxes by Wyoming Legislature in 2017

In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature didn’t implement a corporate or personal income tax, nor did it raise the state sales or property tax to be in line with national averages or close the state’s budget deficit. Lawmakers also did not lay the groundwork necessary for a move away from heavy reliance on the mineral industry.

Instead, legislators contented themselves with nibbling around the edges of Wyoming’s revenue question, moving forward on a few small so-called sin tax increases while deferring decisions on larger tax questions until the new year.

The state remains dependent on energy companies for roughly 70 percent of public revenue and still has some of the lowest tax rates for individuals and non-extractive industry companies in the country.

Lawmakers largely punted the issue of plunging revenue due to the energy bust when they met last winter, promising to examine taxation over the summer and fall ahead of the budget session this February.

And examine they did. The Joint Interim Revenue Committee looked at a host of tax proposals over several meetings, though they did not consider any bills that would dramatically remake the tax system in Wyoming. Committee members also ended up postponing a vote on the most significant changes that they did consider — namely raising the sales tax and possibly the property tax as well — until later in January.

The committee was tasked with generating three revenue plans, one that would raise $100 million, another that would raise $200 million and a third that would raise $300 million. Committee co-chair Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, has said that those were guidelines but that the final product might be a single plan somewhere between $100 million and $300 million or simply a few recommended bills that would each raise a set amount of money.

Wyoming could raise property taxes until the energy industry recovers

Lawmakers are considering increasing Wyoming’s reliance on property taxes until the energy industry recovers. A bill considered by the Interim Joint Revenue Committee last week would raise the taxable value of residential and commercial property taxes by 2 percent for five years or until tax collections from minerals recover to pre-bust levels, whichever is first.

Lawmakers were originally supposed to vote on all the tax bills at their December committee meeting but decided to hold-off on deciding whether to sponsor the sales and property tax measures until the final numbers on education funding are released in late January.

But they still killed a few bills at the December meeting — including one that would have allowed local governments to independently pass taxes more easily — and passed two, one to raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack and a second to raise the sales tax on alcohol by a few percentage points.

Those bills will now be considered by the full Legislature.

But there’s evidence to suggest that the Legislature will be reluctant to pass even the measures that the revenue committee sponsors.

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said at a September committee meeting that taxes were unlikely to pass his chamber.

“You’ve seen what happens to taxes when they hit the Senate,” Kinskey said. “They hit a buzzsaw of opposition — I’m proud of being part of that buzzsaw.”

Additionally, revised revenue estimates released in October projected that the deficit for the upcoming two-year budget cycle are about $200 million less than previously predicted. A further update to those numbers in January may trim the budget gap even more.

That relatively good economic news has also dampened enthusiasm among some lawmakers who had previously agreed that the state might be forced to raise taxes.

“Whatever appetite that was out there — if any — is somewhat diminished,” Gov. Matt Mead said in early December.

Even the so-called “tourism tax” is now in jeopardy. Introduced in September with the backing of the state’s travel industry, the proposal would levy a 1 percent fee on goods and services purchased by out-of-state visitors in order to fund Wyoming tourism promotion efforts.

Despite being a staunch opponent of most taxation, Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, initially said he was open to the idea. But as details of the legislation have come out it became apparent that the measure would charge the tourism tax on most lodging and hospitality services, including bars and restaurants frequented by Wyoming residents, and it has since lost significant momentum.

In an interview earlier this month Bebout was circumspect about the prospect of new revenue streams, acknowledging that the state couldn’t entirely cut its way out of the roughly $700 million budget shortfall over the next two years — the numbers vary depending how it’s calculated — but saying he remained opposed to raising taxes.

“Let the process work,” he said.