Nov 2, 2012 - By Steven R. PeckIf we don't help ourselves, nobody else will do it
Some years ago, the State of Wyoming changed the way it shared revenue with Wyoming's cities and towns. The details are less important now than the effect, which is that the municipalities get far less unencumbered money from the state than they used to.
Then, a few years ago, the state gave its enthusiastic endorsement by ballot for the repeal of the state sales tax on groceries. Cities and towns get much of their money from sales taxes, and eliminating the food tax further reduced the flow of dollars to city halls.
The money slowed down, but the need for it didn't. Across Wyoming, municipalities sing the same bluesy tune about crumbling infrastructure as streets, alleys, curbs gutters, water systems and the like suffer as maintenance is delayed, expansion is postponed, and new projects are pushed farther into the future.
Short of a local sugar daddy with a big heart and an open checkbook, there is no ready source of income to handle these lagging needs. On Tuesday's election ballot, we have a chance to do something about it. We ought to take it.
Voters will be asked to approve an additional 1 percent sales tax on retail goods and qualified services. The money would be divvied up proportionally to the six municipalities in Fremont County as well as to Fremont County government.
This is not money designated for a recreation center or an ice rink. Instead, it would be used to help the local governments catch up on maintenance and repairs of basic infrastructure.
No, this is not what could be called a sexy tax. There isn't much glamor in the various priority lists drawn up in Riverton, Lander, Dubois, Shoshoni, Hudson and Pavillion.
But now might not be the time for glamor. Our county's voters took commendable action in recent years in approving short-term taxes to help pay for library improvements and hospice care, along with the new health/science center at Central Wyoming College, which is now under construction.This is something different, but no less necessary.
Our county has funded projects in the past through bond issues and sales tax increases. Both have their merits, but the attraction of the sales tax is that the revenue burden doesn't fall exclusively on the backs of local citizens. Everyone pays sales tax, including the visitors who pass through our county.
Revenue potential from the latter two categories figures to be even greater now that the impressive rebuild of the Togwotee Pass highway is complete. Our steady stream of travelers on their way to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to sightsee, to Jackson Hole to ski, to the unmatched snow trails of the Upper Country to ride snowmobiles, and the mountains, valleys, lakes and streams of western Wyoming to hike, hunt and fish will bring extra dollars to this new fund.
Penny by penny, millions of dollars will be raised through the tax to make our cities and towns better places to live. And if we decide four years from now that the tax has done its job, we can vote again to suspend it.
We are almost alone in Wyoming in not collecting the extra penny per dollar tax for local uses, and it is to our county's detriment to be in that position.
According to an age-old fable from Aesop, a wagon master was hauling a heavy load on a muddy path. Eventually he reached a place so muddy that a wheel of his wagon sank clear to the axles, so deep that the oxen couldn't pull the wagon free.
Examining the mess, the wagon master sat in his driver's seat and wailed, pleaing for divine assistance. To the god Hercules the Strong he prayed, "O Hercules, help me in this, my hour of distress."
And Hercules did appear, but instead of using his great might to move the wagon, he accosted the driver:
"Tut, man, don't sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel."
The driver got down from his seat and pushed at the stuck wheel. With the load in the wagon lighter and the extra force pushing at the wheel, the wagon came free.
Aesop's famous moral: "The gods help them that help themselves."
Here is our chance to put our collective shoulder to the wheel and help ourselves. If we don't do it, nobody will.
Vote for the optional 1 percent sales tax Tuesday.
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