Future of tax proposal questioned
July 8, 2021
The future of a special election to create a 1% sales tax in Sweetwater County to pay for ambulance services and economic development is in jeopardy after the Rock Springs City Council decided not to support the initiative Tuesday.
An intergovernmental working group consisting of representatives from the Sweetwater County Commissioners and the city and town Councils throughout the county proposes a special November 2 election to allow voters to determine if the tax should be levied. The proposed tax would be split between economic development and ambulance services with 75% being used for ambulance services and 25% going towards economic development causes.
Sales tax in Sweetwater County is at 5%, with 4% being the state sales tax. The additional 1% in Sweetwater County is distributed to the cities and towns based on population and was made permanent by voters. This tax is also not associated with the specific purpose tax commonly referred to the “Sixth-Penny Tax,” which was most recently approved in 2012 and funded infrastructure improvements such as road and water line construction, as well as Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County’s medical office building construction and new ambulances for Castle Rock Hospital District.
Both the Sweetwater County Commissioners and the Green River City Council passed the ballot initiative Tuesday with unanimous votes, however the initiative failed in Rock Springs after a 4-4 vote, with Councilman David Halter abstaining.
Halter is employed as the information technology director of the Sweetwater County Combined Communications Joint Powers Board, which would likely receive funding for 911 services from the tax if it is approved.
Council representatives voting in favor of the special election were Tim Savage, Larry Hickerson, Keaton West and Mayor Tim Kaumo while Jeannie Demas, Tim Robinson, Rob Zotti and Brent Bettolo voted against it.
While the special election can take place without support from the Rock Springs City Council as at least 50% of the governing municipal bodies and the Commissioners are needed to file for the special election, local leaders question if Rock Springs voters would support the sales tax initiative without their Council’s support.
Rock Springs being the most populous city in the county means a county-wide ballot question lives or dies there. If the special election does take place and votes approve it, Rock Springs would still receive sales tax from the additional 1%, despite the Council not backing the special election.
As the tax would be distributed based on population, the city would receive a majority of the funds. Ryan Rust, Green River’s grants administrator, said the exact distribution percentages would be determined once the 2020 U.S. Census data is released.
Concerns about the timing of the request were raised by Commissioner Roy Lloyd prior to the Commissioners’ approval.
“I feel like we’re doing this in a rush,” Lloyd said Tuesday morning.
Lloyd also expressed concerns about Green River residents thinking they were being taxed twice for ambulance service as residents pay a mill levy to Castle Rock Hospital District, which operates Castle Rock Ambulance Service. Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld also questioned if Green River residents would get doubled taxed for ambulance services, noting a similar situation in Wamsutter.
Deputy County Attorney John DeLeon said adjustment could be made which would address the double taxing issue.
Lloyd said he is willing to support the initiative as it gives residents a chance to voice their own opinions about if the county should levy an additional 1% sales tax.
He said ambulance service and the joint powers communication center account for 12.4% of the revenue the cities and county receives.
Rust said the public safety spending amounts to $37 million between the county and the two cities. Rust, despite being employed by Green River, represented the intergovernmental group and made the presentation before the Commissioners Tuesday.
“This will be a county-led resolution,” Commission Chairman Randy Wendling said.
The sales tax is seen as a solution to the funding problems facing ambulance service providers in the county after the Commissioners announced they would not continue subsidizing ambulances last year. The economic development portion of the tax is likewise being seen as a means to improve the county’s ability to recruit businesses and industry to the area.
“Ninety thousand a year is not going to get us where we want to be,” Eric Bingham, the county’s land use director said.
Bingham oversees the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition for the county and said the organization’s funding does not allow it to give industries incentives for relocating or expanding to Sweetwater County. However, one of the questions lingering is if the economic development potion of the funds would be distributed to SEDC or the county and cities based on population. Green River City Council representative Sherry Bushman said she would like some of the funding to get sent to the cities, as it would allow Green River to fund initiatives like its Main Street program to help the city’s economic development goals.
Should a special election move forward, Sweetwater County Clerk Cindy Lane estimates it would cost the county about $100,000 to host. She sought approval from the Commissioners to replace an election clerk position Tuesday to help run the election.
The position was vacated after an employee retired and Lane said she intended to not fill the position until January 2022 for the two elections that year, but would need the help to run the proposed special election. The commissioners approved her request.