As many as five new members could join the Casper City Council next year — and they should expect the unexpected, according to Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey.
“You run and campaign and you have this preconceived notion of what Council will be like. Then you get on it and it’s so different and there’s so much more to it,” she said Friday.
Ten candidates are seeking spots on the City Council in Tuesday’s primary election, including Mayor Ray Pacheco and Councilman Shawn Johnson. But three members — Humphrey, Jesse Morgan and Dallas Laird — have opted not to run for re-election.
New candidates include: Jacquie Anderson (Ward 1), Khrystyn Lutz (Ward 1), Mark Kawa (Ward 2), Kenneth Bates (Ward 2, two-year unexpired), William Knight (Ward 2, two-year unexpired), Steven Freel (Ward 3) and Pete Owen (Ward 3).
Incumbent Mike Huber is running unopposed in Ward 1 for a two-year position.
Humphrey, who served four terms as mayor, explained that it can take a year or two to find your footing. She advised new members to seek guidance from longer-serving leaders and city employees.
“There is a lot of history that you might not understand,” she said.
On the other hand, Laird cautioned new members against relying too heavily on the advice of others.
“Take what the city staff tells you and then go do your own research and make up your own mind — and ask questions if you don’t understand something,” he said.
Morgan agreed and encouraged new Council members to speak up if they have concerns or questions. The councilman added that staying in touch with constituents should always be a top priority.
“City staff presents what they want, but that’s not always in line with what the voters want. At the end of the day, it’s the voters that should have a say and you should follow their direction,” Morgan said.
Although unexpected challenges will undoubtedly arise, there are at least four issues that new Council members can count on debating: the budget, alcohol regulations, downtown development and the recent sales tax error.
The budget: Are more cuts needed?
City Manager Carter Napier told the Council at a strategic planning session in February that he needed direction regarding the city’s budget.
“Am I being too aggressive [with budget cuts] or am I not being aggressive enough?” he asked.
The Council hasn’t exactly provided a definitive answer.
When Napier was hired in June, Council members firmly instructed him to rein in spending and reduce the approximately $4 million in reserves being used to help balance the budget.
The city manager proposed an amendment, which the Council approved last November, to the fiscal year 2017-2018 annual appropriations that balanced the budget using a combination of wage freezes, darkening vacant positions and a renegotiated contract with Rocky Mountain Power.
But there may still be reasons to be cautious with spending.
Casper took a major hit after energy prices sank a few years ago and the city’s economy has yet to fully bounce back.
Additionally, Wyoming’s local governments don’t have independent taxing authority, which leaves municipalities like Casper largely dependent on state funding. Given the state’s boom or bust economy, local leaders never know how much money they will receive.
Although city staff has been instructed to continue finding cutbacks, two recent ideas — seasonal closures at the Fort Caspar Museum and reductions in funding for public transportation — were both ultimately rejected by the Council.
Humphrey said Friday that the Council has to stop sending mixed messages to city employees. Council members should either approve more cuts or stop asking city staff to create the proposals, she explained.
“[The Council] is going to have to figure out what the true priority is — is it saving money or not?” she said.
Downtown’s development: Keep the momentum or rein it in?
City leaders worked for years to revitalize the city’s core — and it would be hard to argue that downtown hasn’t become more lively.
The David Street Station, a public plaza offering an outdoor stage and recreational spaces, opened with fanfare last year. It expanded this summer to include a splash pad, an observation deck and a seasonal ice skating rink.
Local leaders hoped the plaza would encourage other development and that plan is working. A handful of new businesses have popped up downtown, including Urban Bottle, Gaslight Social, Frontier Brewing Company, Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana and Crescent Moon Coffee Stop.
The city has already completed improvements along a stretch of West Yellowstone Highway in the Old Yellowstone District, and now officials are preparing to renovate portions of Midwest Avenue. The City Council recently approved a $2.5 million project to improve the street’s drainage, add benches and flower pots, repair and widen sidewalks and move electrical wiring underground.
Some residents and business owners welcome the revitalization efforts.
“I love what our downtown is doing,” Casper resident Shauna Hult said on a weekend last winter as she enjoyed live music at Frontier Brewing Company while grabbing a bite to eat at a food truck parked out front.
Local entrepreneur Matt Galloway, a co-owner of the Gaslight Social bar, previously said that downtown’s boom was the reason he decided to set up shop along Midwest Avenue.
“I wanted to be part of this major movement,” he explained.
But some have questioned if the city should be spending money on revitalization efforts during an economic downturn. Others have expressed concerns that the attention given to the city’s core has come at the expense of other sections.
“The city is so focused on the downtown area, people tend to forget things on the west side of town,” Todd Sheppard said last December. Shepherd was the owner of Shifters restaurant, which was located on CY Avenue before it closed in November.
Multiple business owners on the city’s outskirts have also told the Star-Tribune that they unexpectedly lost money during the Wyoming Eclipse Festival last August. Some believed this was because city officials only promoted the downtown area during the event.
“If my food vendors hadn’t taken the food back that I ordered [preparing for festival crowds], I would have gone bankrupt,” said Crystal Corson, the owner of Philly Steak and Company.
Alcohol: More or less regulations needed?
Alcohol-related issues frequently come before the City Council — and they tend to be divisive.
In January, Casper Municipal Court judges asked Council members to strengthen the potential penalties for minors convicted of public intoxication or possession of alcohol to include an option for a jail sentence of up to six months.
Judge Nichole Collier wrote a letter explaining that the court wanted to sentence these offenders to probation, but cannot do so unless the crimes become offenses punishable with jail time.
The Council ultimately passed an ordinance that granted Collier’s request. Pacheco said at the time that the measure would give more tools to the city’s judges.
Others felt it was too harsh of a potential punishment for the city’s younger citizens. Laird said it made him “sick” to think teenagers could be sent to jail for months for drinking a beer.
More discussions about alcohol regulations are already on the horizon.
Police Chief Keith McPheeters told the Council in February that over-serving is creating serious problems for law enforcement. Fifty-nine percent of people in Casper who are booked into jail are intoxicated and almost half of all drivers arrested for DUIs are more than the twice the legal limit, according to the chief.
McPheeters advised Council members to re-examine the current demerit system for liquor-license holders.
Many violations are 25 points, including serving alcohol to minors, selling alcohol outside of the established hours or failing to maintain exits and emergency escapes. But right now, the Council does not begin to take disciplinary action until a liquor license holder has reached 125 points within a one-year time frame.
Vice Mayor Charlie Powell recently told Star-Tribune that the Council appreciated the chief’s comments and will be reviewing the demerit system at a later date.
While the chief would like to see stricter regulations, some on the Council want to explore loosening open-container restrictions in certain sections of the city’s core.
Morgan said this week that he didn’t see the harm in allowing citizens to carry their drinks along a block or two downtown during routine events, like Art Walk. Powell said he was also open to exploring that possibility.
Others shot the idea down.
“They don’t need to do that to have a good time,” said Councilman Bob Hopkins.
Sales tax error: Should the city sue?
Wyoming Department of Revenue officials shocked Casper’s leaders this summer when they announced there had been a massive tax error.
The city mistakenly received an additional $1.7 million in sales tax distributions after a Sweetwater County vendor incorrectly reported its taxes in Natrona County. The error occurred from October 2013 to December 2015 and was detected during a routine audit, Kim Lovett, the administrator of the Department of Revenue’s Excise Tax Division, said last month.
After the state learned about the mistake, it deducted the money from Casper’s monthly sales tax distribution — much to local leaders’ chagrin. To soften the fiscal blow, city officials received a loan from the state that will give the city up to five years to pay back the money.
Pacheco has said that he isn’t personally pushing for a lawsuit because the Department of Revenue stated that the vendor’s error was unintentional.
Others think the city needs more answers about the mix-up.
“At this point, I don’t know if it was truly an accident or if there was fraudulent conduct. If there was fraudulent conduct, then I want to consider a lawsuit,” said Laird.
Laird suspects it may have been advantageous to the vendor to file in Natrona County because Sweetwater County had a higher sales tax.
Sweetwater County’s treasurer Robb Slaughter told the Star-Tribune last month that the county’s sales tax was 6 percent from 2013 until April 1 of this year. The sales tax in Natrona County is 5 percent.
Katie King covers the city of Casper.