North end towns offer up 6th cent sales tax projects

A unanimous decision by the Byron Town Council Tuesday night to participate in the proposed sixth-cent sales tax initiative means that all nine municipalities in Big Horn County have agreed to present capital construction projects and send the proposal to voters in November.

The Byron council met at 5 p.m. to address the sixth-cent issue, mayor Bret George said, and after discussion the council voted 5-0 to place the sixth-cent proposal on the general election ballot.

Byron was the final town to submit a project for the sixth-cent sales tax, which though originally proposed by the Town of Greybull as a way to maintain a community swimming pool the community hopes to build, offers all towns in the county an opportunity to fund projects.

The sixth-cent sales tax is a county-wide tax for specific capital construction projects, and six of nine municipalities in the county must approve a project in order for the process to move forward. When the tax money pays off the projects funded through the sixth cent, the tax comes off.

There are four stages to the funding mechanism: 1) Town councils must approve a possible project; 2) Six of nine municipalities must participate; 3) The county commissioners must approve the projects; and 4) Voters must approve the sixth-cent tax at the general election in November.

Seven of nine mayors and all nine Big Horn County municipalities participated in a “mayors meeting” in Lovell last Thursday, April 12, working toward a goal of finalizing projects and project costs, Lovell mayor Bruce Morrison said.

The mayors were joined by the Manderson town clerk and Cowley councilman Dexter Woodis.

“All of the towns were represented,” Morrison said. “It was a very good turnout.”

Working with the towns was attorney Barbara Bonds and investment banker Mary Keating-Scott. The mayors set a May 3 deadline for deciding on projects and a total cost of the combined projects, and Morrison said the combined cost of the projects appears to be around $15 million so far.

The county commissioners must finalize and approve a project resolution by August 27 in order for the proposal to be placed on the general election ballot in November. If the sales tax passes it would go into effect on April 1, 2013.

All five North Big Horn County towns have agreed to participate in the sales tax project, although Lovell has yet to officially act on the proposal while discussing potential projects. Here is a look at each town’s proposed projects:

Byron – Mayor George said the Town of Byron has submitted a $3.4 million grant request to the State Loan and Investment Board for a sewer replacement project on the south side of Byron, and the town would use the sales tax revenue to match the grant to the tune of $808,000. Byron will know whether the town needs the matching money by June 21, when SLIB holds its next meeting.

“We have a major water infiltration problem,” George said. “In the summer the water table rises and gets into the sewer lines. All of our sewer lines from Main Street south are clay tile, and the lines are collapsing and fracturing.

“The amount of water getting into the sewer system is astronomical, and that’s a problem to the DEQ (Dept. of Environmental Quality).”

George said the DEQ has begun a process to hit the town with citations, starting at the $25,000 level, so it is necessary to complete the sewer project.

“We know going down the road that we need to find the money (to match the grant),” George said. “One way or another, we have to find the money. I really don’t want to assess the community to pay for it.”

Cowley – Mayor Joel Peterson said as a small businessman (Office Shop) he doesn’t like an additional sales tax as a source of project funding, but he doesn’t want Cowley to be left out of the process.

Cowley is somewhat “held hostage” by the process, Peterson said, but voted April 10 to offer up a project: resurfacing streets and improving intersections. The town needs curb and gutter and aprons on its intersections to keep traffic off the corners, Peterson said, and the town also wants to resurface every street in town. The projected project cost is $2.2 million, he said.

Still, he worries about the additional sales tax being detrimental to Big Horn County businesses when compared to Park County (4 percent) or Montana (0 percent) sales tax levels, especially when it comes to big ticket items.

“We would have a two-cent disadvantage to Park County,” the mayor said. “Every business in this county will feel it.”

Deaver – The Deaver Town Council also voted April 10 to support participating in the plan and offered up a project: an in-town potable water line replacement project, Town Clerk Vana Camp reported. The estimated $2 million project would replace water mains and service lines.

“We don’t have enough pressure at our hydrants,” Camp said. “We need beter water flow for our fire department and to improve our service in town.”

Frannie – Frannie mayor Jack Cordner said the Frannie community sees the sixth-cent tax as a rare chance to fund a major project in town and, thus, is proposing to rehabilitate the town’s irrigation water well.

“This is our primary project,” Cordner said. “Access to the aquifer, which is almost one mile below the surface, has been blocked by disintegrating pipe. This has reduced the well’s output from 2,000 gallons per minute in 1955 to 150 gpm today.”

Cordner said the project is estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million.

Frannie has a much smaller but still important need, Cordner said: a new pickup truck with a snowplow capacity. The current town truck is some 16 years old and has more than 100,000 on it. The truck is estimated to cost $45,000 to $50,000.

“With respect to the well project there is broad support,” Cordner said. “Given our town’s limited resources, and considering the restrictions imposed by conventional grant programs, the approval of the sixth penny tax is seen as our town’s only hope for having this well returned to normal functioning.

“Hence, this tax, for Frannie, will make the difference between green lawns or being overrun by the surrounding desert terrain.”

Lovell – Mayor Bruce Morrison has expressed support for the sixth cent, although the council has yet to firm up a final project list or vote on going forward.

Originally, the town saw the sixth-cent tax as a way to fund three projects: an expansion of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center east of town, the construction of a building for the Lovell-Kane Museum and improvements at the Lovell Rodeo Grounds.

But Morrison said the town has come to the realization that any facilities to be improved through the sales tax must be owned by the town or the land must be town owned. The town owns the rodeo grounds and the museum is proposed to be built on the vacant lot west of the county annex, which is owned by the town. But the town does not own the land where the mustang center is located.

Morrison said he submitted to the assembled mayors Thursday a possible project cost of $1.2 million for the museum building and upgrades at the rodeo grounds including a restroom/concession stand building and portable bleachers that could be used at the rodeo grounds or anywhere else in town.

He said the town council will reach a consensus on the projects for the sixth cent by the next meeting of the mayors in Deaver on May 3.

“A couple people have approached me about smaller projects, too,” Morrison said.

By David Peck