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Commissioners appear ready to allow extra sales tax vote

Feb 9, 2012 - By Martin Reed Staff Writer

County commissioners have given preliminary approval to placing an optional 1 percent sales tax on the general election ballot, but don't expect to see them holding pom-poms.

"I'm certainly not opposed to it," commissioner Travis Becker told leaders of the county's municipalities attending the meeting Tuesday. "I'm not so sure I'm going to go out and be a cheerleader for it."

The commission heard city leaders from the county voice support for the proposed tax, which would allow voters to decide whether to implement an extra 1 percent sales tax to boost government funding.

Four of five

With commissioner Keja Whiteman absent from the meeting, the four remaining board members indicated they would support putting the question onto the November ballot.

"I think the commission is unanimous this will go to the voters," said board chairman Doug Thompson.

After the meeting, Thompson said he did not want the board to officially vote on the matter without Whiteman.

City leaders in the county approached the board as they continue to discuss the proposed tax.

The city leaders have vowed to use the added revenue to pay for streets and water and sewer projects in their communities, passing resolutions with the stated intention.

But they had not received any indication from commissioners about their plans for allowing the question on the ballot.

"We kind of just like to know where you guys stand," said Pavillion Mayor Gary Hamlin to the commission. "Do we keep kicking this ball down the road? We don't believe we can get anywhere without your guys' support on this.

"We're asking just to allow the people to decide, and we feel like we're hitting a roadblock here," he said.

Lukewarm support

The discussion gave the municipal leaders assurance the tax will appear on the ballot, despite most commissioners voicing opposition for various reasons.

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said his concern is "really rooted in the timing of it." He noted the state of the economy and a barrage of headlines about financial distress.

"I think that's going to be a huge hurdle to overcome," Hickerson said. "It's a national election. Those issues are out in the media every day."

Hickerson suggested waiting another two years instead of continually asking voters for money at every election.

"I'm not going to go out and develop projects and jump on the bandwagon with this thing because I don't think it's a good time," he said.

If approved by voters, the countywide extra 1 percent tax would raise the total sales tax to 5 percent for most purchases, except groceries, which are tax-exempt.

Unlike the specific purpose excise tax that carries a set dollar amount and ends around reaching that point, the optional general purpose tax sought by the municipalities would continue as long as voters renew it.

Revenue projections

The extra tax revenue would generate between $600,000 and $700,000 a month, or about $7 million annually for the municipal and county governments. The county would receive about half of the amount.

During a previous meeting, county government transportation department superintendent Dave Pendleton presented nearly $73 million in road and bridge projects that could benefit from the extra money.

Saying he receives "daily complaints about our roads," Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe said the tax funding would help fix streets, water infrastructure and sidewalks.

"We're just asking if the citizenry is willing to go the extra mile to help build their roads," Wolfe said.

'Hard sell'

Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness agreed with the need for the money.

"It's going to be a hard sell, but we've got streets all over Riverton that are just coming apart," he said.

Hamlin said the money carries more buying power if the government does not have to wait.

"The one part that doesn't escape me ... is that none of this is getting cheaper to do. That's why I'd like to see this go as soon as possible while we can still afford it," Hamlin said.

Hickerson and others on the commission said they would not object to putting the money in road and bridge projects.

"We could dedicate all of that money to roads," he said.

The commission is willing to let the voters decide the matter.

"I probably won't support it this round," Hickerson said. "I won't try to kill it either."

"I've heard it pretty unanimously it will go on the ballot this fall," Thompson said. "What I stated is the 1 percent sales tax passing will be a revenue source I will totally commit to roads and maintenance."