Dave Kinskey

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, at the Legislature in 2015, led the opposition to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities’ request to continue the $105 million direct distribution to local governments.

File, Star-Tribune

BUFFALO — Clearmont is in trouble.

Two employees work just four days each week without benefits. The maintenance worker often finishes up by late Wednesday, meaning any public works issues must wait until the next week.

Wyoming law requires municipalities to balance service costs, like garbage collection, with user fees. But Mayor Chris Schock said that simply isn’t possible in his town of just under 150 souls in Sheridan County.

“I’ve never balanced that line item,” Schock at a legislative meeting here Tuesday. “I’ve always gone in the hole.”

Point is, Clearmont is hard up and unable to balance its own budget without help from the state. Schock said he relies on the discretionary funds that the Wyoming Legislature allocates to local governments each budget cycle. During the current, two-year budget cycle, $105 million is allocated for cities, towns and counties — less than half the amount of previous years, but still an essential lifeboat to communities like Clearmont.

“If we didn’t get our direct distribution I would have to cut these people’s hours down to 15 hours per week,” Schock said. “What this boils down to is, in the winter time, maybe I clear one or two streets per week.”

Schock’s testimony underlines the top priority of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, which represents the state’s 99 cities and towns: ensure another $105 million distribution to local governments for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

Tough sell

That is an increasingly tough sell, because the money had to be paid out of the Legislature’s reserve account last year, amid the drop in revenue from the energy industry. But despite the reluctance of lawmakers, WAM wants to emphasize that towns like Clearmont will be in dire straits if the payments are cut off.

To avoid the need for begging the Legislature to renew the payments each session, though, the organization has also proposed a variety of options that would allow municipalities to raise their own funds through permanent local sales taxes or higher property taxes. If that happened, the Legislature would no longer need to provide the direct distribution out of the general or reserve fund.

Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, was supportive of such a prospect.

“It just takes one headache away and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Madden said.

Whether the Legislature approves those options or not, WAM Executive Director Rick Kaysen emphasized that cities and towns need the direct distribution for at least one more budget cycle.

“It’s going to take a couple years to put everything together,” Kaysen said.

Skepticism expressed

WAM has presented the local tax options as viable alternatives to direct distribution funding for cities with a large property base and sizeable economy. Smaller communities like Clearmont, Kaysen acknowledged, may always need additional state funding because their populations are too small to pay for municipal operations through local taxes. But several lawmakers remained skeptical that WAM will ever stop asking the Legislature to send direct distribution dollars to every municipality in the state.

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said he could support allowing local governments independent taxing authority if that would mean the Legislature stopped funding all but the smallest municipalities.

“WAM’s never been able to come up with that list because the minute one town starts to see another town getting something — all of the sudden something is off,” Kinskey said. “To cut the grand bargain you have to say, ‘Here are the small towns and how we provide for them.’”

Kinskey said he objected to the notion that in order to send tens of thousands of dollars to Clearmont for snowplowing he needed to approve the entire $105 million package.

Committee lawmakers heard from several small town mayors about the importance of maintaining the direct distribution. Ranchester mayor Peter Clark said that his town relies on various forms of state funding for about 95 percent of its budget.

Kinskey, who was previously mayor of Sheridan, said his concern is more with larger cities like Casper, which received $3.3 million this year — less than 5 percent of its total budget. In other words, the cities that are the least dependent receive a large percentage of the total distribution.

Wyoming County Commissioners Association Executive Director Pete Obermueller said that the sudden elimination of that funding would damage county budgets at a time when both property and sales tax revenue is down about 10 percent compared to last year.

“The County Commissioners Association is in lockstep with WAM on the need and importance of continuing the $105 million distribution,” he said. Obermueller noted that the Legislature already cut the distribution by nearly 50 percent, bringing it to the current $105 million.

(Obermueller’s father, Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, sits on the revenue committee.)

But Obermueller also expressed concerns that county governments have with several of WAM’s proposals for generating revenue. For example, WAM has proposed that the Legislature allow municipalities to raise their own sales taxes without county approval — which is currently required for optional 1-cent taxes — but Obermueller said county commissioners should continue to have a say in that decision because county residents shop in cities.

The committee approved by a single vote a recommendation that the Legislature pass another $105 million funding package for local governments during its February session, which will set the budget for the next two years.

The measure must still be approved by the full Legislature.

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Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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