(Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — One way to think about money: a dollar can be used as a lever to open doors to access more dollars.

Similar to how simple mechanical levers magnify the power of a force, Wyoming’s largest communities have leveraged optional sales tax dollars to access grant funding as a way to support the construction and maintenance of trails for residents and visitors to enjoy.

In Casper, the Platte River Trails Trust has helped expand the non-motorized trail system to over 20 miles since the nonprofit was established in 1982, according to Angela Emery, director of the Platte River Trails Trust. So-called “one-cent” optional sales tax dollars have been an instrumental part of those efforts, Emery told the Casper City Council on Tuesday.

The Platte River Trails Trust has been able to invest about $11.8 million toward the construction of trails in Casper since the 1980s. Most of that money came from outside of the community — 32% came directly from one-cent dollars used to leverage grants for the other 68% of the money, Emery said.

In Cheyenne, leveraging optional sales tax dollars to access grants has also been a strategy for constructing trails. The community boasts over 45 miles of bicycle and pedestrian paths, according to the Greater Cheyenne Greenway Foundation.

Trails are just one aspect of how Wyoming’s largest communities use optional sales tax dollars to help fund services and construction. Both Casper and Cheyenne rely on optional sales tax dollars for things like street maintenance, support for police and fire departments and recreation. Both have also used optional sales tax dollars to support nonprofit organizations that provide services to people in need.

While the communities are similar in those ways, there is a major difference between Casper and Cheyenne in historic use of optional sales tax dollars. Wyoming law imposes a 4% statewide sales and use tax and allows local governments to ask voters to approve an additional 1% countywide sales and use tax.

In Natrona County, the optional countywide sales tax was first approved by voters in 1974 and is often referred to colloquially as “one-cent.” The countywide optional sales tax able to support general government needs initially passed in Laramie County in 1978 but is more commonly referred to in Cheyenne as the “fifth penny.”

The reason for the difference: voters in Laramie County have supported an extra 1% optional sales tax to support specific projects since 1991. That extra local sales and use tax is colloquially referred to as a “sixth penny” sales tax. The rules for the “fifth penny” and “sixth penny” tax are different under Wyoming law. In order to put a “sixth penny” tax question on the ballot, local governments must ask voters to approve the tax to collect money for a specific project and once the amount of money needed for that project is raised, collection of the “sixth penny” tax stops.

Laramie County voters’ historic support for the “sixth penny” tax is one reason Cheyenne’s trail system is more extensive than Casper’s, where the extra money from the special purpose 1% tax has not historically been available.

In 2021, Laramie County voters approved sixth cent taxes to raise $3.5 million to expand the Cheyenne Greenway System and another $2.5 million for maintenance of the trail system. The “sixth penny” revenues for maintenance of Cheyenne’s trails system alone exceed the total Platte River Trails Trust got for new trails construction, maintenance and administration during the current four-year “one-cent” cycle in Casper.

The City of Casper allocated $1.5 million to the Platte River Trails Trust for the current four-year cycle and that allocation is likely to drop to $1 million over the next four years if Natrona County voters approve the renewal of the countywide optional one-cent tax this fall.

While the Casper City Council has yet to finalize a set of priorities for use of one-cent dollars, the city has proposed dropping the allocation to the Platte River Trails Trust to $1 million due to overall demands for use of the one-cent far exceeding revenues the tax is likely to generate. The City of Casper anticipates its share of the countywide 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, 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.

Emery urged the City Council on Tuesday to continue directing one-cent funding to the Platte River Trails Trust to allow it to continue leveraging grants to support the trails system in Casper. If the Casper community does not pursue state and federal grants to support trails construction, Emery said communities like Cheyenne, Pinedale and Jackson are sure to do so. She noted that a spring survey gauging Natrona voters’ support for one-cent found trails, along with parks and playgrounds, to be sixth in terms of priorities to be supported by the tax:

Fifth-cent sentiment survey in Natrona County for 2022 (City of Casper)

Leveraging grants through the use of one-cent is not the only way Platte River Trails Trust gets work done in Casper. The organization also set up an endowment with the Wyoming Community Foundation in 2002 and uses annual distributions from that endowment to employ a trails technician and conduct some trails maintenance, Emery told the City Council. Saving up money via that endowment allowed for a recent project to replace a segment of trail near the Tate Pumphouse, she added.

The primary projects the Platte River Trails Trust wants to get done over the next four years if voters renew one-cent include adding connection trails into Casper neighborhoods, to schools on the east and west side and the extension of the Casper Rail Trail to Edness Kimball-Wilkins State Park, Emery told the council.

Without the one-cent money, the Platte River Trails Trust will be unable to leverage those dollars to provide match funding required to receive grants for trail construction, Emery said.

“We also won’t be able to bring money in to stimulate our own economy,” Emery said, adding that trails support quality of life and attract people to the community.

The Platte River Trails Trust is just one example of how Casper’s share of one-cent dollars have been used as a lever to access grants and bring outside money into the community. North Platte River restoration projects are another example. The proposed plan for use of one-cent dollars over the next four years would direct $2 million of the $64.5 million pot toward river restoration work. That money would be used to leverage grants to get more work done restoring the river, Assistant to the City Manager Jolene Martinez told the City Council during its June 28 work session.

The river restoration work doesn’t only deal with pollution in the river and restoration of habitat but work on the river bank has also been shown to have prevented costs the community would have otherwise incurred from flooding events, Martinez told the City Council.

Like the Platte River Trails Trust, the river restoration work could use more money than it is expected to be allocated in the upcoming one-cent cycle. While $4 million was requested, the city’s proposal reduced that to $2 million. With the $64.5 million not enough to cover all the requests across the city, each department has a number of requests that won’t get funded.

A number of nonprofit agencies who serve thousands of Casper families have also urged the City Council to continue supporting a one-cent grant program for nonprofits. One reason for this is because securing support from a government entity is a prerequisite to nonprofits’s ability to secure grant funding from other entities, Anna Wilcox with the Wyoming Nonprofit Network told the City Council on Tuesday. The City Council tentatively agreed to a plan Tuesday to restore $2.25 million for a one-cent grant program supporting nonprofits on Tuesday after staff’s initial plan proposed eliminating the program entirely. The $2.25 million would be a reduction from the $3.05 million the grant program supporting nonprofits was allocated during the current four-year one-cent cycle.

The City Council’s next step in regard to a plan for use of one-cent dollars is to consider a formal resolution to establish a set of priorities that would get funded through the tax over the next four years if voters approve its renewal this November.

While there have been some adjustments due to the restoration of the one-cent grant program to the proposal, the staff proposal detailed in the following document largely represents what is being recommended for use of one-cent: