City Manager Carter Napier addressing the City Council during the July 5 meeting. (Screenshot via City of Casper, YouTube)

CASPER, Wyo. — When City of Casper staff presented a proposal to the Casper City Council to eliminate a grant program supporting nonprofit organizations, no ill will was meant toward those groups, City Manager Carter Napier said in an interview on Wednesday.

The City of Casper anticipates its share of one-cent optional sales tax revenues will total $64.5 million over the next four years if voters choose to renew the countywide tax this November. $64.5 million is enough to fund just over half of the $128.8 million in requests Casper department heads identified as top priorities when coming up with a proposal for the City Council to consider.

After learning about the staff proposal to cut the grant program — without receiving advance notice from the city — nonprofit leaders urged the City Council during its July 5 meeting to think hard about how eliminating the grant program could hurt services their organizations provide to residents.

Nonprofits that would be impacted provide services to thousands of families and children in the community and have prepared documents showing how the loss of one-cent support could affect their work to help inform the City Council’s July 12 work session discussion of one-cent priorities:

With the city seeing needs far in excess of the revenues it expects one-cent will generate, the open-call grant program supporting nonprofits is just one example of things that won’t get funded if the City Council doesn’t modify staff’s proposal. Some examples of projects city leaders requested funding for that didn’t receive an allocation under the citywide staff proposal include:

  • Construction of a new Fire Station 1: $11 million
  • Construction of a new Metro Animal Shelter: $5 million
  • Casper Ice Arena expansion project: $14.24 million
  • Fort Caspar Museum expansion: $2 million
  • Fire Truck 1 Replacement: $1.5 million
  • Cemetery irrigation masterplan and phase I irrigation project: $865,000
  • New Marion Kreiner Swimming Pool filter: $509,000
  • Street repair projects:
    • 21st Street from Beverly to Missouri: $1.45 million
    • Saratoga ‐ Odell to Mariposa; Odell ‐ Knollwood to 29th: $1.25 million
    • Robertson Rd ‐ Upper Aster to Herrington Drive: $1.2 million
    • Westridge Lane: $1.04 million
    • Bryan Evansville Road ‐ Bryan Stock to Knife River Yard: $1 million
    • K Street ‐ St. Mary to Bryan Stock Trail: $880,000
  • Water and sewer projects:
    • Dahlia ‐ Valley Drive to Paradise Drive: $1.05 million
    • Calypso ‐ Magnolia to Begonia: $620,000
    • E “F” St ‐ Center to St. John (Lead): $475,000
    • E “F” St ‐ Helen to Bryan Stock Trail: $400,000
    • Poppy ‐ Gardenia to Paradise Drive: $355,000

Those are just some of the higher dollar projects that wouldn’t get funded under the staff proposal. Further examples are available in staff’s full proposed one-cent plan:

The City Council could still reshuffle staff’s list of priorities and could look to direct other funding sources to make some of these projects happen.

That could happen with some of the streets projects, for instance. Streets repairs and equipments would receive $21.8 million under the staff proposal but some on the City Council want to find ways to direct more to streets.

Casper originally projected one-cent revenues during the current four-year cycle would total around $58 million but Napier told the City Council on June 28 actual one-cent revenues are likely to exceed that by around $5 million by the end of the cycle. Some on the council said they’d like to see some of that $5 million used to beef up the streets budget over the next four years.

Some of the leaders of Casper nonprofits that received grant funding support during the current four-year cycle have asked why some of those $5 million in excess one-cent revenues from the current cycle couldn’t be used to keep the grant program alive. The city allocated a total of $3,052,000 in one-cent revenues during the current four-year cycle to support the following entities, City Clerk Fleur Tremel told the City Council during the June 28 work session:

  • Seton House
  • Youth Crisis Center
  • Wyoming Food for Thought Project
  • Food Bank of the Rockies
  • University of Wyoming Extension
  • United Way of Natrona County
  • Self Help Center
  • Science Zone
  • Natrona County Library
  • Natrona County Meals on Wheels
  • Casper-Natrona County Health Department
  • Mercer Family Resource Center
  • Joshua’s Storehouse
  • Interfaith of Natrona County
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters
  • Downtown Development Authority
  • Children’s Advocacy Project
  • Child Development Center
  • Casper Senior Center
  • Casper Sports Alliance
  • Casper Mountain Ski Patrol
  • CASA of Natrona County
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Wyoming
  • ARC of Natrona County
  • *Central Wyoming Hospice and Transitions also received support, though it’s name was not mentioned during the June 28 work session.

While the city anticipates a surplus of $5 million at the end of the current one-cent cycle, that is down from the roughly $12 million in extra one-cent revenues the city received by the end of the previous cycle. Less extra one-cent revenues coupled with better intelligence about the city’s deteriorating infrastructure — provided through things like a 2020 study indicating the city was spending too little on streets as well as a recent study that found city-owned buildings need over $33 million in repairs — are some of the factors in why staff isn’t recommending the continuation of the one-cent grant program, Napier said on Wednesday.

One-cent is one of the city’s only sources of funding for capital projects, Napier said Wednesday. He didn’t bring up a different source of revenue the city is relying on for some capital projects that it received in recent years— federal relief funding. The city used about $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to purchase the Casper Business Center and is holding onto about $11.2 million in federal CARES Act funds to fund the remodel of that building.

Napier emphasized during the interview that some nonprofit organizations would continue to see support from one-cent under staff’s proposal, though it is true the open call grant program would be eliminated. One argument nonprofit leaders have given as to why the city should continue to support nonprofits is that if they didn’t exist, the city might have to pay to provide such services itself.

While all nonprofits may provide a service valuable to people in the community, Napier said Wednesday he doesn’t think it is necessarily the case the city would have to provide those services if some of those nonprofits were to disappear. Part of staff’s reasoning in recommending one-cent funding for select nonprofits is that those organizations provide services the city might be responsible for providing if they didn’t exist, Napier added, pointing to the Casper Housing Authority as one example.

“The reason that the nonprofits are included to the extent that they are in the current proposal is from the standpoint of providing a service that we would otherwise be expected to provide if we didn’t have that partnership,” Napier said. “That can’t be said with every single nonprofit that’s in the community — even though all nonprofits are providing an important service to the community and I can never dispute that nor would I want to.”

While the city wouldn’t necessarily need to spend its resources if some of the community’s nonprofits went away, Napier acknowledged loss of services they provide could impact the community as a whole.

“I know that there would be implications in a ripple effect with any nonprofit closing down,” he said. “…The nonprofit landscape here is broad and we’ve got a lot of services that we as a community are lucky to have but may not necessarily be the City of Casper’s responsibility to duplicate if it were to go away.”

Another reason city staff have said it may be appropriate to eliminate the one-cent grant program supporting nonprofits is because other grant opportunities may be available that weren’t at the start of the current one-cent cycle. Casper Public Information Officer Rachel Bouzis reached out after Oil City published this story about staff’s proposal to eliminate the grant program, she noted that the article didn’t mention the Natrona Collective Health Trust, set up after the sale of the Wyoming Medical Center with a mission to support nonprofit organizations.

However, the CEO and board chair of the Natrona Collective Health Trust said in a July 5 letter to the Casper City Council the board and staff think the City Council should continue to support nonprofit organizations with one-cent dollars.

“Our recent analysis of the community’s needs found residents are struggling with mental and behavioral health issues, food insecurity, affordable housing, and childcare,” the letter stated. “The burden of addressing these issues falls heavily on our community nonprofits, who themselves are struggling with funding cuts due to the market downturn, rising costs due to inflation and employment, and increasing community needs as we recover from a global pandemic. Waitlists for services are often long due to the lack of financial support to expand services.”

“In order to move the needle on our community’s issues, these dedicated nonprofits must not only maintain their current funding sources, but they must also grow their funding. The City of Casper’s one-cent funding is a necessary lifeline for these organizations and the people they serve as it provides a predictable amount of multi-year support. The loss of that funding would be catastrophic to any progress these nonprofits have made and many of those costs would shift to city and county government to address needs unable to be met by nonprofits.”

In addition, the letter expressed concern that the city staff proposal did not involve engagement with the nonprofits that would be impacted before it was presented to the City Council.

“[W]hen drastic changes like this are proposed, those affected by those changes should be engaged in the decision-making process,” the letter stated.

A number of nonprofit leaders Oil City spoke with during a Zoom call on Wednesday expressed some frustration about being left in the dark about the staff proposal to eliminate the grant program.

Napier defended the choice not to tell nonprofits about the proposal before staff had the chance to present it to the City Council during the June 28 work session.

“I don’t have any ill will towards any of the nonprofits,” he said during the Wednesday interview with reporters at City Hall. “I think they all provide a really, really good service.”

“But in the same token, I’m not going to load the council up with a bunch of haters because I’m gonna call them up and say, ‘Hey, you’re not being funded. You should come to council and make your position known.'”

The City Council could still modify staff’s proposal to include more support for nonprofits and there was some indication from members like Vice Mayor Steve Freel during the June 5 meeting there is some appetite for that to happen. Mayor Ray Pacheco, on the other hand, will not participate in the one-cent discussion relating to nonprofits after he said city staff advised him to recuse himself from the discussion doue to his work with the GEAR UP program at Casper College.

Whatever happens with one-cent allocations, the situation of needs exceeding available money is likely to repeat unless there are some changes to state law. While one-cent has received a lot of attention, there is another item on the ballot this November Napier has said would help improve the city’s ability to fund and care for infrastructure maintenance.

Voters will be asked to consider an amendment to the Wyoming Constitution to allow local governments to invest money in equities. The state itself is already able to invest in equities, and if Casper were able to do so, it would be a big benefit to setting up funds to deal with things like long-term infrastructure maintenance, Napier recently told the City Council.

That full ballot measure reads as follows, according to Ballotpedia:

The Wyoming Constitution allows the state to invest state funds in equities such as the stock of corporations, but does not allow the funds of counties, cities and other political subdivisions to be invested in equities. The adoption of this amendment would allow the funds of counties, cities and other political subdivisions to be invested in equities to the extent and in the manner the legislature may allow by law. Any law authorizing the investment of specified political subdivision funds in equities would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature. Ballotpedia