County Commissioners Consider Possibility of Special Purpose Tax

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GREEN RIVER — The Board of County Commissioners weighed in on the possibility of putting a new Special Purpose Tax on next years ballot at their regular meeting on September 3.

Representatives from cities, towns and outside agencies met at the Sweetwater Events Complex on August 27 to present capital projects they would want to fund through a new Special Purpose Tax (SPT), also known as a Sixth Penny Tax. To fund every project presented at that meeting would cost a total of $228 million; a price tag everyone agreed would have to come down.

“I would say at least $130-$140 million needs to come off the top,” Rock Springs City Councilor David Halter said.

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Rock Springs Councilor Keaton West estimated it would take over twelve years of having the SPT in place to fund every project presented. County Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld said the county is not amenable to levying the tax for that long. “I think four years is a reasonable expectation,” Schoenfeld said.

COUNTY BOARD PERSPECTIVE

Commissioners were quick to point out that the process of getting a SPT before voters begins in earnest when at least two-thirds of incorporated communities make a formal request to the county. “What starts the process is coming to the commission with a formal request,” Commissioner Randy Wendling said.

Other commissioners concurred with Schoenfeld that not all the projects presented at the August 27 meeting can be funded by Sixth Penny money. “I’d like to see them hedge it back,” Commissioner Roy Lloyd said. Wendling also said that current figures are too high and that an amount between $80-$100 million is more reasonable. “I want to hear more, I want to see more. I do believe that it has be capped.” Wendling said.

As a group, the board agreed with Wendling that they need more information on project specifics and a formal request from municipalities. At the same time, every commissioner expressed general support for getting a SPT measure on the ballot. “I’m not opposed to doing a sixth penny at all,” Commissioner Jeffrey Smith said.

Commission Chairman Wally Johnson said it was too soon to make a judgement on what voters would be receptive to. However, Johnson said he does know that voters will balk at a $228 price tag. “I think that there’s been a mistake made already, because the feedback I’m getting is that you’ve gotta be kidding me [with $228 million],” Johnson said.

Wendling also said he’ll want to hear from voters before deciding what amount of funding is appropriate. “It’s going to be important to hear from people in the county as to what their threshold is. Of course, we’ll get some that will say zero, remember that,” Wendling said.

NARROWING THE FOCUS

$228 million is certainly a big number, but the reality is that voters shouldn’t be concerned with that figure. Everyone involved has been clear that all the projects put up for funding so far are in direct competition for tax dollars. Only the highest priority projects will receive SPT funding, the rest will have to find other funding or not happen.

For example, the highest priority undertaking for Rock Springs is a $4 million Water Reclamation Facility oder improvement project. Several Rock Springs City Council members have already said that project is an essential infrastructure upgrade that needs to happen. SweetwaterNOW initially reported on the possibility of new SPT when the topic came up at a July City Council meeting.

Meanwhile, a project that seems less likely to make it to the ballot is a new multi-use indoor athletics facility next to the Rock Springs Recreation Center. Heather Anderson presented the multi-use facility project at the August 27 meeting. Anderson was representing a group of community members that want to see the facility receive SPT funding. Anderson said the facility would add to quality of life and drive people to Rock Springs. However, projects that aren’t related to vital infrastructure will likely be on the chopping block first.

Rock Springs City Councilor Rob Zotti said he’d like to see communities pare their lists down to essential infrastructure projects. “I think there’s support, but I don’t think there’s support for things that aren’t necessarily seen as needed or urgent,” Zotti said.

STAYING COMPETITIVE

At the August 27 meeting, Green River Mayor Pete Rust said that a SPT is one of the few options available for making communities in the county more livable. “There absolutely should be a discussion on how this might be pared. But it’s a different world today than it was just six years ago … when we did the last Sixth Penny,” Rust said.

Green River City Administrator Reed Clevenger echoed Rust. “We understand the magnitude of the number, but we also understand that we will continue to fall behind even on the most basic needs without the ability to create a way to generate additional funds for the betterment of the community,” Clevenger said.

Rust also pointed out that Carbon County voters recently approved raising $67 million through a Sixth Penny Tax. “For 16,000 people they’re spending $67 million” Rust said.

Rock Springs Mayor Time Kaumo has also said he’d like to see projects beyond basic infrastructure receive funding, but reminded everyone that using SPT money for projects like new facilities is tricky. “Because this is one time money, you can’t have money in there that’s going to be paying for personnel, heating and air-conditioning … you’re gonna have to digest that and build that into your existing budget,” Kaumo said.

At the County Board meeting, Wendling said declines in money from the state have made SPT funding more critical than ever. “I ask myself what’s driving that dollar amount so high and I think it’s a direct connection to a lack from the state in their direct distributions to counties and towns … The state still hasn’t realized that it’s storming and they’re sitting on a rainy day fund,” Wendling said.