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Cities, counties will try to find solution on tax bill

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Interim Committee has a bill on its plate that would allow cities to put an additional municipal sales tax to voters.

But instead of voting on the bill, the committee hit pause this week to allow cities and counties a chance to work through major difference on the bill and find a compromise that could pass through the Legislature.

Representatives from the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association said they are set to meet this month to try to work out a compromise that would give cities like Cheyenne a chance to pass an additional city-specific tax.

Cheyenne, Casper and other large cities in the state have pushed the Legislature in previous years to allow them the ability to present a tax question to their residents on a ballot. But the WCCA and smaller towns have fought previous attempts to pass an optional municipal tax bill, most recently in November 2018, when two different bills died during the interim committee process.

Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr argued during the Revenue Committee’s meeting Tuesday that when cities like Cheyenne and Casper grow, the revenue from that growth helps the entire state. But in order to accommodate that growth, Cheyenne is in need of accessing revenue to help build the infrastructure that would allow expansion.

“A strong Cheyenne is good for the state of Wyoming. The first four pennies (of sales tax) goes to the state. So if we have a great sales and use tax base, it helps the entire state,” Orr said. “One of the things we’re faced with, because we’re growing, last time I was here I stated we needed a new fire station. Well, now we need two.”

Orr said one of the downsides of the sixth-penny sales tax, which raise a specific amount of money to address a stated project, is it often is tied up for four to six years, depending on how many projects are approved at once. That means if Cheyenne or another city has an urgent need for infrastructure, it has to wait until the sixth penny is freed up again.

A municipal option tax would allow those needs to be met without delays that could hamper growth, Orr said.

But counties and smaller municipalities see a major downside in allowing Cheyenne and other large cities to vote on their own tax question. If Cheyenne passes an additional sales tax for city needs, voters there could be less likely to support a fifth- or sixth-penny tax question on the county level.

That could create a situation where unincorporated Laramie County or a smaller town can’t get the revenue they need for needed projects, said Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the WCCA.

“If (Cheyenne) passes that tax, then what’s the incentive of those residents who are county residents to support a broader county tax that might help a Burns or an Albin?” Rieman said. “That’s really where the opposition is driven from outside. It can really put large municipalities in the driver seat at the expense of the county and those other municipalities.”

While voters approved an initial fifth-penny tax, which is a general purpose tax, county commissioners can reauthorize it without continuing to seek voter approval. Laramie County has not gone that route with the fifth-penny, and officials continue to seek voter approval for the tax.

Reiman hasn’t discussed with WCCA’s membership what they’d agree to support. But from his perspective, any compromise that protects the fifth- and sixth-penny tax for counties would be a step in the right direction.

That could mean setting a bar that a municipality can go to voters with the optional tax only if a county has a fifth- and sixth-penny tax already in place, or the Legislature could make permanent the county’s fifth- and sixth-penny tax.

If a compromise can be met, the next step would be getting the Revenue Committee to decide to support it as a bill during the 2020 budget session.