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Even in tighter times, towns and cities 'way ahead' in state funding

Mar 16, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

Although a last-minute change to the local government distribution model will cost Fremont County's smallest towns, they will still come away with more state funding than initially expected.

Fremont County and its six municipalities stand to receive a combined $1 million more in local distribution funds than what they were supposed to receive heading into the legislative session.

The additional dollars came from tweaks to the distribution model to consider assessed valuation and sales and use tax revenues. Lawmakers also increased the total appropriation to cities, towns and counties.

"The bottom line here is that Fremont County comes out way ahead relative to the way the traditional formula was," said Senate Majority Floor Leader, Eli Bebout, R-Riverton.

The increased funding didn't come easily. At a time of declining revenues caused by a depressed energy sector, the Wyoming Legislature spent its session cutting programs and slashing budgets to try and make up for the shortfall.

"It was probably in the top five sessions in terms of the amount of effort, time and stress that went into resolving that issue," Bebout said. "When I looked at the way we started out the session, absolutely, it was a huge difference, the way we finally ended up, and that took a lot of work and a lot of debate."

The numbers

More than two-thirds of Wyoming's 99 cities and towns saw an increase in state funding due to the new distribution model.

Fremont County's towns and cities should collect about $3.3 million in the 2017 fiscal year, according to preliminary numbers from the Legislative Services Office. The estimated amounts:

- Riverton $1.18 million;

- Lander $815,656;

- Dubois $119,141;

- Hudson $69,627;

- Pavillion at $47,174;

- Shoshoni at $90,582;

- Fremont County government $978,721.

Tough negotiations

Deciding on how to fund local governments took hours of negotiations and deadlocks, with some even storming out of the room in frustration.

Bebout said lawmakers were still hashing out the bill on the eve of session concluding March 4. Gov. Matt Mead was involved, as was leadership from both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Going into the legislative session, the Joint Appropriations Committee proposed $90 million in local distribution for the 2017-18 biennium, about half of the $183 million appropriated to local governments for the last two years. Several attempts were made to increase the amount before the House and Senate agreed on $105 million from the state's rainy-day fund.

'Dug their heels in'

Changing the distribution formula proved to be a larger fight.

"People really dug their heels in, including me, because no way were we going back to the traditional distribution formula," Bebout said.

Most legislators supported improving the funding model. But in the last week of session, State Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, proposed amending the budget bill to benefit counties receiving hardship funds, including Fremont County and Rothfuss's home county of Albany. The House didn't like this amendment, and negotiations on it between the two chambers continued until the last day of session.

After considerable back and forth, legislators compromised, agreeing to take 5 percent, or $1.7 million, out of what would have gone to cities and towns in the 2017 fiscal year and give it to counties receiving hardship funds.

Smaller towns hit

The funds going to hardship counties were taken from cities and towns including Shoshoni, Pavillion and Hudson.

Hudson is within the legislative district represented by State Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander. He said smaller towns already struggle, as they don't have as many places to shift resources away from in order to continue providing services to residents if funds are cut. They also have fewer retail outlets to generate sales tax revenue.

Nonetheless, Allen said he felt compelled to vote for the bill.

"It got right down to the last hour of the last day, and if they hadn't reached a deal, we'd have had to come back on Monday and keep going, and that costs the state a lot, about $30,000 a day for session," Allen said.

'Lesser of two evils'

Other Fremont County legislators who represent small towns also said they felt they had to support compromise or risk a bigger loss.

"If we didn't pass it, they were probably not going to get any money. It didn't look like it was going to come out any better," said State Rep. Rita Campbell, R-Shoshoni. "I think it was the lesser of two evils when it comes down to it, and it was a give-and-take all the way around."

Pavillion sits within the legislative district represented by Campbell.

"I didn't want to vote that way, but we had to (vote) to get things passed and get on with the program," Campbell said. "It's a difficult time for all of us, and what we are going to have to face in the future doesn't look very rosy for us, but hopefully we can figure out something better."

State Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, represents a legislative district that includes Shoshoni.

"In the end, the $105 million, I felt was the right amount, and the only way to get that $105 million was to take some of the changes that the Senate had allowed to be inserted," Winters said. "It was the best way to move forward for cities, towns and counties."

No-vote

State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said he didn't support giving more money to hardship counties.

"I think some of the hardship is misdirected. It's very political, and it was a politically-gained formula," Case said. "Hardship sounds like it's all good and goes to good things, but if you track it, it doesn't do what it sounds like it does. It's not equitable."

Room for improvement

Case said the formula needs improvement.

"I just don't think we've got this tuned in," he said.

Campbell agreed.

"I look to that formula to be addressed later on," she said. "I guess we will have to live with what we've got, but it's not pleasant."

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