SWEETWATER COUNTY — Sweetwater County residents could see a 1 percent general purpose sales and use tax initiative on a special election ballot this November after the Sweetwater County Commission and Green River City Council both approved it Tuesday.
The reasoning for wanting to implement a 1 percent sales and use tax is to help fund public safety and economic development throughout the county, according to Ryan Rust, Green River Government Affairs and Grant Manager.
For the initiative to appear on the ballot for a special election, which would take place November 2, 50 percent of the municipalities in Sweetwater County have to approve it. While the county and Green River both approved it Tuesday, the motion died in the Rock Springs City Council meeting Tuesday.
Bairoil, Wamsutter, Granger, and Superior are yet to take action on the resolution, but Rust believes they will do so by the July 15 deadline. The resolution must be finalized by July 15 to appear on the ballot for a special election in November.
Sweetwater County currently has a 1 percent general purpose tax which has been made permanent by resolution, according to Rust. As per statute, the general purpose taxes may be levied by increments of 0.5 percent, and cannot exceed 2 percent. This means this proposed tax would be in addition to the current 1 percent sales and use tax, as well as the 4 percent that goes to the state.
The Purpose of the Tax Initiative
According to Rust, expenses for emergency services and public safety are increasing while revenues decrease. Rust said that about $36.6 million of the Fiscal Year 2021 general government fund budgets was dedicated to public safety.
Ambulance services in the county have become a source of concern, as the county and cities cannot find a way to fund these services long term. In December 2020, the Sweetwater County Commission announced the termination of the existing ambulance contracts and subsidies, due to decreases in revenue. The termination was to go into effect on March 31, 2021.
However, the cities and county started having intergovernmental meetings in search for solutions to funding these types of services. The Commission extended their subsidies through Fiscal Year 2020, and then renewed them for another year as long term solutions continue to be explored.
One of those solutions is a 1 percent general purpose tax initiative. The average sales and use tax revenue for the past 10 years is about $17.3 million.
The proposed initiative would dedicate 0.75 percent of the tax to fund public safety such as ambulance services, the police departments, fire departments, the Sweetwater County Combined Communications Joint Powers Board, and more.
The other 0.25 percent would be dedicated to funding economic development throughout the county. Eric Bingham, Sweetwater County Land Use Director, said that the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition (SEDC) currently receive $90,000 for funding. He said not only is that not enough to accomplish their goals, but it also doesn’t allow them the funding to provide incentives to businesses interested in locating in Sweetwater County.
“Ninety-thousand dollars isn’t going to get us to where we need to be,” Bingham said.
Distributions of the overall tax revenue would be based on population. Rock Springs would receive the most, followed by Green River, then the County, and then the remaining towns would receive the rest.
According to Rust, the Commission and each council would have authority to designate the tax revenue how they see fit under the restrictions that 0.75 percent of collections would have to go toward public safety, and the other 0.25 percent going to economic development. Designations would be determined through Memorandums of Understanding (MOU).
Discussion Over the Tax Initiative
Both the County Commission and the Green River City Council unanimously approved to move forward with the tax initiative. Commissioner Jeff Smith was absent from the meeting.
However, despite the unanimous approval, Commissioner Roy Lloyd expressed some concerns. One concern was about Green River residents possibly having the perception that they are being double-taxed, as Castle Rock Medical Center already uses taxes collected from a mill levy to help fund their ambulance services.
“I’ll be honest, I struggle with this a bit… I worry a little bit about the perception of some folks in Green River of already having the mill levy with Castle Rock,” Commissioner Lloyd said.
He also expressed concern with passing a 6th penny, or special purpose tax, later on if this tax is implemented. His final concern was with the timeline of the initiative and the pace in which it is moving forward.
“I think there’s great intent but I don’t know if all the mechanisms are in place that need to be to actually go to election,” Commissioner Lloyd said. “I feel like we’re doing this in a rush.”
However, Chairman Randy “Doc” Wendling said that while the pace seems quick, an initiative such as this one was on its way eventually.
“It was coming. It was just a matter of taking the step forward,” Chairman Wendling said.
He said that the state has made it clear that they are cutting distributions to cities and counties, and that in order to provide important services, the cities and counties will have to come up with their own funding.
“If we’re going to do anything, we’re going to have to do it ourselves, as a county, as cities, as incorporated areas. And in order for that to happen, we’ve got to step up and take care of our communities and take care of providing these necessary services to everyone, as well as attract industry here so that the county revenue can get to a point where maybe we don’t have to depend on the state anymore,” Chairman Wendling said.
Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld said she also believes the tax will be important in further SEDC’s efforts for economic development.
Commissioner Mary Thoman said that while she doesn’t support additional taxes, she believes this will be a more “equitable” tax initiative. Currently, the mineral industry pays about 47 percent of the county’s property taxes, according to Rust, and Thoman believes the sales and use tax will be more fair.
“I’m glad that we’re not putting the tax in a property tax on the backs of our mineral industries because they have carried the load and I think this is a more equitable tax,” Thoman said.
Commissioner Lloyd reminded constituents that despite their approval of this resolution, this does not mean the tax is being put into place. It will still have to receive approval from at least two other municipalities or incorporated towns, and then it will be placed on a ballot for voters to make the final decision.
“This is allowing the public to make a vote and a statement,” Commissioner Lloyd said.
According to Sweetwater County Clerk Cindy Lane, the cost to have the special election in November could cost about $100,000. Discussions are still taking place to figure out how that cost would be split up among the county and the cities and towns.