Voters in 19 of Wyoming’s 23 counties will face local tax propositions on their General Election ballots, including 12 new revenue measures.
The requests for new or continued taxing authority range from increasing sales taxes to fund infrastructure to forming special taxing districts for museums, firefighting and other things, according to a WyoFile analysis. Voters in four counties face no tax questions. In eight counties, voters will be asked only to reauthorize existing sales and property taxes
However, 12 of the propositions seek approval for new projects or tax measures. Those range from a $40 million request for new infrastructure projects in Sheridan County to an ask for the creation of a museum district in Saratoga.
In tax-resistant Wyoming, local governments are appealing directly to taxpayers as state revenues — and state funding for towns and counties — plunge with the tail-spinning fossil fuel economy. The Wyoming Legislature has continued to avoid serious debate on statewide measures to increase taxes or create new ones.
“We recognize it’s a different world and we’ve got to figure out how to do things,” said Bob McLaurin, former Town of Jackson manager who now works for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Still, “I’m a little bit surprised,” he said of the dozen requests for new taxes or authorities.
Talk with an assortment of town council members led Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) to hypothesize that cities seek independence, believing “the less we need to rely on the state, the better, especially if [the state position is] going to be cut, cut, cut.”
But officials are aware there’s a balance. In Niobrara County, the towns of Lusk, Manville and Van Tassell approached county commissioners for a $21.6 million total ballot proposition for those towns’ infrastructure. “The County had an opportunity to include a project on the tax question, but declined to do so due to the massive size of the projects that the municipalities are proposing,” County Commission Chairman Pat Wade wrote in an email.
$69 million for infrastructure
A handful of counties and towns seek new sales taxes to raise a combined $69 million for infrastructure. The largest of those requests for new money comes from Sheridan County, where commissioners and municipalities seek a 1% specific purpose tax for $40 million in new projects.
The Towns of Clearmont, Dayton, Ranchester would benefit. The largest shares would go to the City of Sheridan, which would get $22 million, and Sheridan County, which would get $12.6 million for roads, bridges and public facilities.
(A note on methodology: WyoFile categorizes this as a new tax, even though the county imposes a 1% special purpose tax today, because the proposition names new infrastructure projects to begin when the existing tax expires. Information for this article came from sample ballots, interviews and email correspondence with officials and other sources. Conservation district mill levies are not included in this report.)
Niobrara County’s municipal officials seek approval for a 1% specific purpose tax to raise $21.6 million for sewer, water, streets, sidewalks and a fire truck. In Crook County, the same tax could raise $7.5 million for infrastructure in the towns of Hulett, Moorcroft, Pine Haven and Sundance and across the county.
Voters in Uinta County’s School District No. 1 will decide whether to back a $22.7 million bond issue that would build a fieldhouse in Evanston that could be used for winter sports and community events.
Teton County is asking voters to approve a new optional 1% general revenue sales tax. If passed, sales taxes (not counting lodging taxes) would climb from 6% to 7%, raising an estimated additional $16 million annually. The change would give Teton County the state’s highest sales tax, not counting lodging taxes.
Today, Albany, Carbon, Hot Springs, Johnson, Laramie, Platte and Sheridan counties share the 6% top-sales-tax-tier title with Teton.
In the General Election, Park County seeks to add a 1% sales tax for general revenue, bumping the state-minimum 4% tax rate to 5%. Fremont, Goshen and Weston are asking voters to continue imposing a 1% sales tax for general county purposes.
In addition to those sales taxes, voters in nine counties will decide the fate of new or continuing lodging taxes. Campbell County seeks to increase the rate from 2% to 4%.
Voters in several counties also will see requests to continue or increase property tax mill levies or authorize the formation of districts that could impose such levies. Five of those issues are new mill levies. Saratoga would create a museum district capable of seeking property taxes if voters approve of its formation.
Sublette County, the only Wyoming county without a hospital, is asking voters to create a hospital district that would be funded by a three-mill property tax.
Voters on Nov. 3 will decide what portion of their community activities they will choose to support. In Crook County, voters have approved the specific purpose tax before; most recently in 2014 for $6.2 million, according to the Sundance Times.
In Campbell County, voters could lock in a 4% lodging tax to be used for tourism largely at the county’s discretion. If voters wait for the state’s lodging tax to kick in on Jan. 1, 2021, they could lose control over some of the tax — which will rise to 5% regardless of county voters’ desires because of legislation passed in 2020.
Funds from the higher tax would continue to promote Campbell County, Jessica Seders, the executive director of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau said. It also would offer grants to organizations looking to bring events to the county — in a new and different COVID-19 tourism world.
“We’ve seen a lot of tourists,” she said. “They just aren’t staying in hotels. There’s an increase in RV sales and people are staying in campgrounds.”
That taxing approach fits with the Wyoming Association of Municipalities’ pitch to lawmakers, McLaurin said.
“What we told the Legislature last year is ‘allow us to help ourselves,’” he said. “Give us more tools — that [was] part of our message.”
The statewide lodging tax will boost new areas of tourism, McLaurin said. “It’s going to give money to cities and towns that didn’t have it previously,” he said.
Niobrara residents are also familiar with specific purpose taxes. “This has been used very successfully in the past … most recently funding updates to our local hospital,” commissioner Wade wrote. It has paid for a swimming pool, fairgrounds buildings, firetrucks and heavy equipment.
In Evanston, school officials cited “a growing need for school districts around the state,” to provide wintertime school sports facilities in their bond-issue request. The Evanston field house would be available for community use as well and could boost events income for the county, backers told the Uinta County Herald.
Teton County politicians have debated the seventh-cent sales tax with former Jackson Mayor and current County Commissioner Mark Barron arguing against. A seventh cent would amount to a 17% sales tax increase, he wrote in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, and governments should tighten their belts instead.
For Jackson Town Councilman Jonathan Schechter, the tax would “maintain our current service levels,” he said in an email. Tourists would pay 50% to 55% of the tax, he estimated. Barron told Buckrail.com the claim that tourists pay 50% of the tax “is no longer the case.”
Schechter had another differing perspective from Barron’s on the increase. “After taxes are added, the price of a $1 cup of coffee will go from $1.06 to $1.07,” or a 0.9% increase, he wrote.
If the tax passes, visitors to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort who stay at Teton Village might pay the highest tax rate in Wyoming. In addition to the potential 7%, they would pay a 2% lodging tax and a 2% resort district tax for a total of 11%