Towns move forward on sixth cent

The mayors and town officials have spoken when it comes to the sixth-cent sales tax proposal – well, almost.

Meeting in Deaver Thursday night, mayors and/or town representatives of the nine Big Horn County municipalities met to discuss projects to take to voters at the November General Election for the proposed sixth-cent sales tax initiative.

When Thursday’s meeting began, chairman Bruce Morrison went around the room and asked each town if their projects discussed at the May meeting had changed. Here is the current list as noted by each mayor or town clerk Thursday:

Manderson – Water tank and water main replacement, $2.2 million.

Greybull – Swimming pool operation and maintenance for 20 years, $2.4 million, with the school district also going to voters in the district for $5 million for design and construction of a new pool. It was explained Thursday that not all of the sales tax money can be used for O&M, so a portion must be used to help construct the pool, as well.

Basin – 1) Remodel the currently vacant town hall annex and refurbish the existing town hall for a community center ($200,000); 2) if and when the state builds a new high school in Basin, remodel the existing gymnasium as a recreation center ($200,000); 3) fund operation and maintenance of the recreation center for 20 years ($800,000) – total $1.2 million.

Burlington – Address town’s potable water problems or pave roads in town, $2 million.

Frannie – Rehabilitate the town irrigation water well ($1,216,250) and purchase a new town pickup truck with a snowplow capacity ($46,405), for a total of $1,262,655.

Deaver – Replace in-town potable water lines – mains and service lines — $2 million.

Cowley – Resurface streets and improve intersections with curb and gutter and aprons at the intersections, $2.3 million.

Byron – Matching funds for a sewer line replacement project on the south side of Byron, park improvements, chip and crack sealing and recreation funding — $1,250,000.

“There are still some questions to be answered within our council,” Mayor Bret George said Thursday, noting that the town will hold a public hearing on the sixth-cent projects on May 24.

He said some citizens would like to use sales tax money to refurbish the old school pool, but there are questions about whether tax money can be spent on a building that is now privately owned.

Lovell – New building for the proposed Lovell-Kane Museum, $1.5 million; improvements to the rodeo grounds including a new restroom and concessions building, $110,000; new golf cart barn at Foster Gulch, $40,000; street paving and curb and gutter in parts of town currently without pavement, $550,000 – total of $2.2 million.

The new list of projects now amounts to $16,812,655. At an estimated payoff of $1.4 million in sales tax revenue per year, it would take 12 years to pay off the sales tax, and with the cost of getting up-front money through a bonding process, the total bill could be up to $22 million and the payoff would be longer, officials said Thursday, perhaps 15 to 16 years.

Business concerns

Cowley mayor Joel Peterson said one concern he has is that an extra-cent sales tax would drive even more shoppers out of the county to Park County or Montana, so the payoff would take even longer. If there is a 2-cent differential between Park and Big Horn counties, for instance, he said a contractor or private individual could save $2,000 on $100,000 worth of lumber by purchasing it in Powell.

Frannie mayor Jack Cordner argued that a 1-cent sales tax isn’t enough to drive people to change their shopping habits, noting that most business is generated from small purchases a little at a time. He said people aren’t going to drive miles and miles to save 1 percent.

But Peterson said he worries about the county not being business friendly. He said people making major purchases in Montana are supposed to stop at the Port of Entry for sales tax notification but don’t.

“I don’t think we can guarantee $1.4 million (in revenue) every year,” he said.

But again, Cordner said he doesn’t see people changing their shopping patterns, noting, “With all due respect, the concern about people rushing to Park County or Montana is a red herring.”

Richard Hawley of Sen. Mike Enzi’s staff said a high percentage of sales tax is paid by people visiting or passing through a community, some 60 percent in Lincoln County, a county similar to Big Horn, he said. He agreed with Cordner that 1 cent won’t change people’s shopping patterns, asking the assembled officials if people stopped shopping at Walmart in Cody when Park County enacted the optional 1-cent sales tax a few years ago.

“People don’t think of a fifth or sixth penny,” he said. “ It’s not a major buying decision for people.”

Peterson countered that small businesses will have to eat the extra sales tax to stay competitive, so the tax will actually come out of each business’s bottom line.

Some officials wondered about the timing of the sales tax initiative, noting that the process seems rushed and wondering if they could fund a lot of the projects through SLIB, with the sales tax merely providing the match.

“I feel that way,” Deaver mayor Fred Yates said. “It’s going pretty quick. We need to do homework to see what SLIB could do. Maybe we’d only need $1 million. Can we get people educated, or are they going to say ‘I don’t want another tax.’?”

Some mayors wondered about the money it would take to prepare for the tax and the accompanying bonding, but Greybull councilman Bob Graham noted, “That’s a pretty cheap way to find out if there’s support. If it fails we’ll find out why and continue forward.”

Lovell mayor Morrison agreed, noting, “I don’t think we stop here. We are in dire need enough and Big Horn County is poor enough that we’re always looking at options to do things.”

Graham said people would logically want to support business in Big Horn County to support the projects the sales tax would pay for, rather than buying in Park County and paying for Powell or Cody projects.

“If people vote for the tax we’re all saying we’re willing to pay an extra penny so communities can get something viable and make people want to live here or pass through and spend time here,” Graham said. “If you buy in Cody you’re paying for their library or Powell’s pool. Why would you do that? Why would you go to Cody instead of going across the street to Red Apple or buying a set of tires from Minchow’s?”

The answer, Peterson said, is that people want to take care of their money.

“We compete directly with Park County every day,” he said. “We have to be as cheap as Park County. It (the extra tax) comes out of my share. It always has. It doesn’t just magically appear.”

Finding support

The point is, Peterson said, that the towns need to make a strong case to the voters because they are going to have to pay the tax for many years under the current proposal. He said Cowley, like other towns, has needs the tax would meet.

“We need these things,” he said. “We’ve done nothing to our streets in 20 years. It’s a great opportunity for us, but I’m just telling you I’m not sure in this environment that the people will support it.”

All at Thursday’s meeting agreed that unity is the key. Morrison said one Lovell councilman (Brian Dickson) has stated that if people vote for the sales tax they should be willing to pay for it by doing their shopping locally.

Basin mayor Amy Kania said each town must ask if its project is viable, and if not, the project won’t sell. Peterson said he worries that people in each community would only see their own project as viable.

That’s part of the educational process, Burlington town clerk Penny Jones said. Communities must think in terms of the revenue benefitting the entire county, she said, noting that individual parts are hard to sell.

Peterson said he’d like to see a final, solid list of projects, and Morrison said that list can be solidified over the next two months, but what he wanted to know Thursday is whether there were any dissenters.

George said Byron still has to solidify its projects, noting that the community portion of the now privately owned former school is on a lease that can be terminated by either party in 30 days. Hawley said that, typically, a privately-owned building must have at least a five-year lease for public use in order to receive public money.

Graham noted that each town government is going to have to sell its specific project or projects to voters, and Peterson agreed that the towns must be united, but he added, “We’re going to have to talk like silver-tongued devils to get this to go.”

Kania noted, “Any time you add to the quality of life in your community, you have a much better chance of surviving and growing instead of dying…We, as citizens, have to be willing to help ourselves.”

The mayors agreed to gather again on June 7 in Frannie at 6:30 p.m.

By David Peck