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Town-only taxes

Apr 28, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

In Fremont County, there is a strong case to be made for it

Fremont County could be a good test case for the concept of allowing cities and towns to tax themselves -- and not their county neighbors -- to pay for projects within city limits.

Riverton city officials have raised the issue again this month, seeking an endorsement from the Wyoming Association of Municipalities for draft legislation that would OK such "town-only" taxes. They probably speak for a lot of other city officials around Wyoming in calling for legislative action to permit the placing of optional sales, capital facilities taxes or bond issues on municipal ballots rather than countywide or school district ballots. There are few good reasons to prohibit such taxes from being placed before voters, and there are many good reasons to allow it under Wyoming law.

Many is the time in Fremont County that either Lander or Riverton has wished for the taxation authority to fund a particular municipal facility, service, or other project for that particular municipality, only to face the obstacle of attracting votes to the idea from outside the city limits, from rural voters, voters in another municipality, or both.

If voters who live in the county but not in the town opt not to support what the requesting town would like to do, the measures often fail.

A prominent case in point in recent memory was the failure of Fremont County School District 25 voters to approve temporary taxation to construct an enhanced football stadium and accompanying athletic complex at Riverton High School after the State of Wyoming had built a state-of-the-art football field and track with nothing else around it. That failed twice, in fact. District 25 includes some well-populated areas outside the city limits. In both votes, residents of the City of Riverton itself mustered a majority, while residents of the school district who did not live in the city limits voted strongly against it.

That's no knock on the voters who said no. They voted their particular interest, and the stadium tax cast too wide a net. That's what voters do. But it ought to work the other way as well, allowing voters with a narrower interest to vote for a narrower project.

Oddly, cities and towns are among the only government entities in our state that can't vote to assess taxes for specific purposes. The state can do it. Counties can do it. School districts can do it, as can fire protection districts, irrigation districts, even cemetery districts. But not municipalities.

The inability to assess the municipal-only sales or facilities tax works in particular against Fremont County's situation, where there are two sizable cities in the same county in addition to Wyoming's largest unincorporated population. When the law was conceived generations ago, lawmakers were considering counties in which there is one major population center.

And it's not just Lander and Riverton. What if residents of Dubois, 75 miles removed from either of its more-populated county neighbors, were ready to increase their local sales tax for a year to raise a new mountain sheep sculpture at the town's entrance? As things stand now, voters in Lander, Riverton, Shoshoni, Hudson, Pavillion and the rural farm and ranch land would have to approve it, which they probably wouldn't. County neighborliness only goes so far.

In that respect, if Gillette wanted to build a $55 million recreation center, which it did, the required countywide ballot measure in Campbell County is virtually the same thing as a Gillette municipal tax, because Gillette is the overwhelmingly dominant population center in that county.

But in Fremont County, along with a few others such as Sweetwater, Lincoln and Park counties, the "other town" has to go along with what is being proposed in its neighboring municipality. And in Fremont, where just as many people live outside a city limit as within one, the passage challenge is doubled. Plan backers don't have to convince just local voters, but also voters in other towns, and voters who don't like town living at all.

Why, then, shouldn't a city or town have the authority to tax itself? Voters already vote for mayor and council members in city-only votes. Those same voters ought to have the opportunity to approve or reject specific tax proposals for city-only construction or service projects.

Wyoming's legislators have heard this idea before. They are going to hear it again soon, and this time they ought to listen.

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