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County OKs 1 percent tax question for Nov. 6 ballot

Mar 14, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County voters will get the chance in November to decide whether to impose an optional 1 percent sales tax to fund infrastructure projects.

On Tuesday, the Fremont County Commission approved placing the resolution on the ballot. Election day is Nov. 6.

Commissioners unanimously supported placing the tax proposal before voters. It would provide funding to the county along with its six municipalities for "streets, roads, bridges, water and sewer utilities."

The proposal appearing on the general election ballot this year involves a 1 percent sales tax in place for four years, with voters getting the opportunity to determine whether to continue it every four years.

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

The ballot question approval follows action by the county's municipal government in past months, each of which passed a similar resolution asking that the proposal be put in front of voters.

Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness thanked the county leaders for allowing the ballot question, prompting this response from commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson: "Now the hard part starts, Mayor."

County voters have been resistant to approve the general-purpose sales tax as opposed to specific-purpose taxes that have a set target amount attached to an identified project.

In this case, municipal leaders in Fremont County have indicated their commitment to spend the tax money purely on the specified types of infrastructure work.

Warpness told commissioners the county's resolution would help set the stage for the commitment the municipalities are making to the voters for the specific projects.

"This is one of the reasons we've been waiting for this resolution so we can go back and tweak our resolutions to make sure they're the same as you folks," he said.

Warpness anticipates the Riverton City Council and the governing boards for the other municipalities will approve new resolutions to match language in the county's tax document.

The extra tax revenue would generate between $600,000 and $700,000 a month, or about $7 million annually, for the municipal governments. Fremont County's municipalities are Riverton, Lander, Dubois, Shoshoni, Hudson and Pavillion.

The county's share at half would amount to about $3.5 million, while the City of Riverton could receive about $1.7 million annually.

During discussion on the matter Tuesday, commissioners questioned whether the tax proposal should involve the four-year term instead of two.

"It was my understanding that the smaller municipalities ... their share of the 1 percent is so small it will take them a long time to build up money" if the tax lasted two years, commissioner Travis Becker said.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said the governing bodies receiving the tax money would not get the funding for possibly a year to allow time for collection and distribution.

Fremont County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger wanted clarification in the tax resolution to ensure language that states the proposal entails the general-purpose option and not the specific-purpose tax.

"I think that needs to be made clear that it is a general-purpose tax," Harnsberger said. "There's two optional sales taxes, and they're both voter-imposed."

Commissioner Keja Whiteman suggested expanding the use of the tax money for the county, which does not have any water or sewer infrastructure. She raised the hypothetical situation of a building collapse.

"Infrastructure, I guess, I am real comfortable with that term," Whiteman said.

But commission chairman Doug Thompson said he favored keeping the language as specific as possible.

"This is going to be a tough sell anyway, and I guess if we would restrict it down" the better it will be.