Legislator proposes way to boost funding for small towns

RIVERTON — Small communities in Wyoming could get a larger portion of the state's local government distribution through an amendment State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, proposed recently during a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting Cheyenne.

The change would mean less money for larger cities including Riverton and Lander but more for smaller towns including Dubois, Hudson, Pavillion and Shoshoni, which rely heavily on the distribution, according to Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith, who testified during Thursday's JAC meeting.

"I'm very happy to hear this approach," he told the JAC during its meeting Jan. 9. "I appreciate what this committee is doing and want to thank you for recognizing the importance of the direct distribution to the municipalities - and in particular the smaller municipalities."

Based on information he gathered from town clerks in Fremont County, the money from the state makes up about a quarter of the municipal budget in Pavillion and Hudson and close to 17% of Shoshoni's, Highsmith said.

In Park County, Meeteetse's direct distribution from the state is the equivalent of the "entire streets department," Cody Mayor Matt Hall said.

"So any kind of ... bump is going to help the town of Meeteetse considerably, as well as a lot of the other municipalities (with populations of) 1,200 and less," Hall told the JAC.

Fewer than half (about 40%) of Wyoming's 99 cities contain more than 1,200 people, according to the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division and the 2010 Census, and Shoshoni, with about 650 people, sits "right in the middle" of the population ranking, Highsmith said.

He pointed out that small towns "don't have a way to tax ourselves," since they "don't generate enough sales tax."

That inability to generate revenue was one reason Bebout said he proposed the distribution amendment.

"You have an entire budget where they could have one hiccup with their operating funds and they have no money," he said. "If you have a major break or an issue that comes up, what do you do? Because you don't have millions of dollars in reserves. (All they have is) whatever this really gives them, and that's it."

He recalled one smaller community that couldn't afford to pay an outside contractor who was hired to complete some municipal repairs.

"So the contractor just waited," Bebout said. "That's not a way we should allow these small communities to operate. There's a real need there."

He acknowledged that larger cities would "take a hit" as a result of the change to the distribution formula, but he said smaller communities will benefit - "which is the intent."

"That's exactly what I wanted to try to accomplish," Bebout said, adding, "There's never enough money for the larger cities. I expect them to say, very delicately, that they don't like it, and I get that."

Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr didn't meet Bebout's expectation when she spoke in favor of his amendment, despite the fact that her city would lose money as a result.

In fact, speaking in front of the JAC on Thursday, Orr said the size of the distribution small towns in Wyoming currently receive makes her "sick to her stomach."

"I don't know how the mayor of Shoshoni does it," she said. "I'm supportive of this. Cheyenne does take a hit, but our smaller communities are so incredibly important to this state."

She then spoke about a bill coming out of Wyoming's Joint Revenue Committee that would allow larger cities like hers to tax themselves without requiring approval from two-thirds of the entire county.

"The bill that will be coming before you ... takes that down to 50%, so that kind of helps," Orr said. "We really want to be able to chart our own course, and we think we can."

Hall also serves as chair of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities legislative committee, and from that vantage point he said it appears WAM is "pretty comfortable" with the amendment.

A chart from the Legislative Services Office shows the amount going to Riverton as a result of the change would fall about $26,000, from about $753,000 to almost $727,000.

Lander would get about $16,000 less, with its distribution falling from about $510,000 to about $494,000.

Meanwhile, Dubois' distribution amount would rise about $4,000, from about $71,000 to almost $75,000; Hudson's would rise about $6,000, from about $39,000 to more than $45,000; Pavillion's would rise about $6,500, from almost $26,000 to about $32,500; and Shoshoni's would rise more than $5,000, from about $52,750 to almost $58,000.

The JAC approved the amendment unanimously, as well as the draft bill covering local government distributions.