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Asking the question

Mar 18, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

It took a good long while, but leaders of Fremont County's six incorporated municipalities have won permission from the county commission to place an initiative on the Nov. 6 general election ballot asking residents to -- brace yourselves -- raise taxes.

Now that the question has been approved for the ballot, it's time for the municipalities to make their case -- not to the commissioners, but to the voters.

The towns want to collect 1 percent on retail sales in Fremont County and use the money for repairs, improvements and additions to infrastructure. The tax would be "turned off" after four years unless voters agreed to extend it.

These are not glamorous projects. As described by the six municipalities, the wish list doesn't have a rec center, a library, a skate park or an airport terminal in sight. Instead, it focuses on streets and alleys, lighting, water and sewer work that has been lagging for years as the towns scrimp for money.

This is not the shiny stuff. Nobody gets excited about a new water pipe or settling pond. But that might not be all bad. Fremont County voters have proved more than once in the past decade that they don't really like shiny stuff much, at least not anymore. So, municipal leaders might figure it's time to aim lower with the tax request and try to obtain some money to do many of the things that grumpy city and town residents complain aren't getting done.

Our municipalities -- Riverton, Lander, Dubois, Shoshoni, Hudson and Pavillion, in order of population -- are at the bottom of the funding food chain compared to the state and the counties. The latter can rely on property taxes and mineral severance taxes for funds, and in Wyoming those have been a great revenue stream this century.

Municipalities have sales tax revenues, but those are much less likely to "boom," even in good economic times. Plus, the sales tax on most grocery items has been eliminated under state law in recent years, further constricting the sales tax flow to the towns.

Things are tough all over, of course, but as the form of government closest to the citizens, municipalities also face some of the biggest obstacles and complaints when they try to raise the few fees they can control. Even if the increases do go through, they don't raise all that much new money for local government. The populations aren't big enough.

Our conservative, penny-pinching city leaders wouldn't have asked for the tax questions unless they believed it was necessary. A large and skeptical portion of the electorate will need to be persuaded. Again, this won't be glamorous work, but if the towns want the money, then they must demonstrate, clearly and repeatedly, that it is needed.

So show us the potholes, the inefficient bulbs, the overtime hours generated because of balky equipment or systems, the benefit of having a mechanism that works better, and the risks that come with doing nothing, whether they be safety risks, public health risks or liability risks.

Make that case before the service groups, the business leaders, the educators, the clergy, the social clubs. Try to get young people interested in the topic. Answer the objections, tout the advantages. Put some money into an ad campaign in our newspaper.

And then do it all over again. That's what it will take.

County commissioner Pat Hickerson, of Lander, put it candidly and well at Tuesday's commission meeting after Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness thanked the panel for approving the tax initiative for the ballot.

"Now the hard part starts, Mayor," he said.

If it took months to get the commissioners to sign off on simply letting the voters have a chance to say yes or no, imagine the task now at hand for the proponents of the tax to get the voters to say yes. Easy? Not on your life. Possible? We'll know in November. Worth trying? Absolutely -- starting now.