Before I moved to Wyoming, I had never seen the mountains.
Okay, that’s not entirely true (I actually spent the first few years of my life between Washington state, Oregon and Montana.) When I was maybe five or six years old, I spent a summer with my dad on a ranch in Victor, Montana; he was a hunting guide at the time. I have very few memories from that summer. I remember that it snowed one day in August. I remember a plate-sized bruise on my dad’s ribcage where a horse had bit him. I remember riding around town in a doorless Jeep with a ranch hand named Jesse. But I don’t remember the mountains.
I spent most of the rest of my life in Wisconsin. (A beautiful state, sure, but mountainless.) My first close-up experience with any kind of jutting landscape was about three weeks after I came to Wyoming. I drove to Fort Collins on a 60 degree day in January and climbed Horsetooth Mountain. I coated my Nike tennis shoes in mud and, no lie, cried a little when I got to the end of the trail. It was something about the geometry. Who knows why certain things move us. Anyway, that began my winter of weekly hikes. It birthed a new passion I never thought I’d have.
Moving to Casper, then, was especially exciting. The mountain is right there. I get to look at it every day. When I drive home from work, I’m driving toward it. Still, it took nearly a month for me to test the trails. I did for the first time Sunday. I was not disappointed.
Rotary Park blows my mind. It’s a public park at the base of a waterfall on the side of a mountain. I mean, seriously. There are some good public parks in Wisconsin, but as with most government projects in my home state, the quality of a public resource heavily depends on the wealth of the community. Certainly Wyoming struggles with its own disparities, but I think there’s something to be said for how this state funds infrastructure and capital projects.
In Wyoming, a lot of projects like Rotary Park exist because voters opt to pay one additional penny of sales tax on every dollar they spend in the community: the 1-cent sales tax. This does not exist in Wisconsin, which is maybe why I’m so fascinated by it.
While I know most Wyomingites already know what the 1-cent tax is and how it works, in the month I’ve been covering local government I’ve heard some confusion around what the tax does and what it’s supposed to pay for. So this week, in my new effort to share the new things I’ve been learning about local government, I wanted to spend some column inches running through a few of those questions.
What is it?
The 1-cent tax, sometimes called the 1-penny tax, is exactly how it sounds. For counties that opt to accept the tax, one penny of additional sales tax is added to each dollar spent in the community. There are actually two separate 1-cent tax options in Wyoming. There is a 5th-penny tax that functions as a way to redistribute sales tax back into the counties. There’s also a 6th-penny tax, which must be reserved specifically for capital projects.
How do residents opt in?
Voters in Wyoming get to vote every four years on whether they want the 1-cent tax. Natrona County residents first approved the 1-cent tax in 1974. Since then, according to county information on the tax, the tax has provided more than $200 million for capital projects in the community.
What has it paid for?
One-cent money is used for a wide range of capital projects. It’s gone to fire station maintenance. It’s funded Fort Caspar projects. One-cent money has been spent on swimming pool replacements, library projects, public parks, trail development, the Casper Visitors Center and hundreds of other projects. The Casper City Council voted at a recent meeting to approve 1-cent money to help Meals on Wheels pay for a new van.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Mills Fire Department situation, you might have heard Mills Mayor Seth Coleman talk about 1-cent funds being used to pay firefighters’ salaries. Coleman has said the town is trying to avoid that in the future because voters only approve the 1-cent money for specific infrastructure projects. The tax is also unreliable, because one day voters could decide they don’t want to be taxed that extra penny anymore.
Casper City Manager Carter Napier told the Star-Tribune last week that unreliability is exactly why Casper tries to stay away from using that money for anything other than one-time expenses.
There are pros and cons, but it’s pretty cool to see some of the work the tax has paid for.
If you want more information about the 1-cent tax in Natrona County, there’s an excellent resource at onecentprocess.com. The county put together a map that shows 1-cent projects since 1974, and there are lists of all the projects that have been approved in the past.
And as always, if you have any questions for me, or if there’s something you think I should look into, let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-266-0505.