(Brendan LaChance, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — On Tuesday, the Casper City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution establishing how the City of Casper would use optional one-cent sales tax revenues in the next four-year cycle should voters approve renewal of the countywide tax this November.

The city anticipates its share of the revenues from the 1% countywide sales and use tax will total around $64.5 million over four years if it is renewed. For the past few months, the City Council has been discussing a plan for how the city would use that money.

The resolution passed on Tuesday can be seen as a commitment to residents as to how the $64.5 million would be used by the city, according to City Manager Carter Napier, who highlighted aspects of the plan during the meeting.

A spring survey gauging what Natrona County residents think should be priorities for use of the tax revenues found streets, water and sewer to be the top of the list. The plan adopted by the City Council would direct $21.8 million of the $64.5 million total to streets over four years.

That would include $4.8 million per year specifically toward street repairs, with the other streets funding for equipment and vehicles, Napier noted.

$2.6 million per year would go to water and sewer, though the city has yet to determine how much would go to water versus sewer, the city manager added.

While staff initially proposed eliminating a one-cent grant program supporting nonprofits, $2.2 million is being allocated to such a grant program after the City Council indicated it wanted to keep that program alive during a work session in July.

Councilmember Bruce Knell said that he thinks people should know that a lot of work and compromise went into arriving at the plan the City Council approved on Tuesday. He added that the survey of residents was an important factor in setting the priorities.

Knell said he is proud of the final plan and the work and compromises that went into it, and said he thinks voters should support renewal of the one-cent tax this November.

“That money will do good work within our city,” he said.

While she voted in favor of the resolution, Councilmember Lisa Engebretsen said ahead of the vote Tuesday that she thinks some of the money for streets should instead have been used to bolster the nonprofit grant program. The grant program received a $3 million allocation during the current one-cent cycle compared with the $2.25 million it would get in the next cycle.

Engebretsen said that she often hears from people new to the community that they think Casper’s streets are in good condition compared to other places and that she thinks some of the money for streets would be better used supporting nonprofits and the services they provide in the community.

Casper’s final one-cent plan

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the City Council had been discussing how the city should use one-cent revenues for months, beginning with a discussion of the results of the survey gauging what Natrona County residents think are priorities for use of the tax revenues.

After discussing the survey results in May, City of Casper staff began presenting a proposed plan for use of one-cent revenues to the City Council in June. Staff considered things like the survey results, priorities the City Council has communicated and input from department heads in coming up with the initial plan.

Residents had the opportunity to weigh in on the city’s plan as the one-cent discussion proceeded. While the initial staff plan proposed eliminating a grant program supporting nonprofit organizations, people representing nonprofits that serve thousands of Casper families urged the City Council to keep the grant program alive. In July, the City Council indicated it wanted to direct $2.25 million toward the nonprofit grant program under the overall one-cent proposal.

The resolution the City Council passed on Tuesday prioritizes the use of the $64.5 million in anticipated one-cent revenues over the next four years as follows, according to a city staff memo:

  • Street Repair: $21.8 million
  • Water and Sewer: $10.4 million
  • Public Building Repairs: $5.445 million
  • Police: $5.5 million
  • Fire/EMS: $3.805 million
  • Parks and Playgrounds: $3.1 million
  • Community Assistance Programs: $3 million
  • Sports and Physical Fitness: $2.6 million
  • Nonprofit Grant Program: $2.25 million
  • River Restoration: $2 million
  • Bus Services: $2 million
  • Culture and Entertainment: $1.8 million
  • Cybersecurity and Technology: $800,000

City of Casper thinks needs far exceed available one-cent revenues

Many of the things City of Casper staff think need attention will not get funded under the plan.

The $64.5 million the city anticipates will be its share of one-cent revenues 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 an initial proposal for the City Council to consider.

Examples of things that won’t get funded under the plan the City Council passed on Tuesday 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 Road – 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
    • East F Street – Center to St. John (Lead): $475,000
    • East F Street – Helen to Bryan Stock Trail: $400,000
    • Poppy – Gardenia to Paradise Drive: $355,000

Those are just some of the higher-dollar projects that won’t get funded.

One-cent key source of funding for upkeep of Casper’s basic infrastructure

One-cent optional sales tax dollars are one of the only major sources of revenue the city can rely on for things like the streets and building maintenance projects, Napier has emphasized in discussions over the past few months.

In addition to data from the survey of Natrona residents, city staff considered some recent studies indicating the city’s infrastructure is in serious need of attention while coming up with a one-cent proposal for the City Council to consider. A 2020 study indicated that the city was spending too little on streets and that Casper’s streets are in poorer condition, on average, than the rest of the country.

The city also considered the results of an assessment of 127 facilities it owns, finding that city-owned buildings need over $33 million in repairs, a cost that could balloon to nearly $93 million by 2027 if maintenance is deferred.

The $21.8 million in one-cent funds toward streets over the next four years is short of the amount needed to ensure the city’s overall “Pavement Condition Index” score doesn’t decline. About an extra $2.8 million over the next four years for streets would be needed to meet the threshold of investing the $5.5 million per year that staff thinks is needed to maintain the city’s overall street condition score.

The study looking at the condition of city buildings did not include invasive inspection techniques needed to define with precision what actual system maintenance and replacement needs exist. Staff’s plan is to use some of the $5.445 million allocated to public building repairs to conduct those more precise assessments and begin addressing maintenance needs based on problems that are actually found to exist.

One example of a city-owned building that needs attention is the Casper Family Aquatic Center, where rust chips have been falling from the ceiling. The one-cent plan the City Council approved on Tuesday includes about $1.9 million needed to repair problems at the Casper Family Aquatic Center.

Nonprofit grant program supported by one-cent revenues

During the current four-year one-cent cycle, the City of Casper directed about $3 million toward a grant program supporting nonprofit organizations. With staff thinking the city’s needs far exceed what will be available in the upcoming one-cent cycle, staff’s initial plan proposed eliminating the nonprofit grant program.

The proposal to eliminate the grant program prompted nonprofit leaders to urge the City Council against adopting the staff proposal, arguing that the services nonprofits provide are critical to families in Casper. Nonprofits that have received support from one-cent also prepared the following document intended to show the City Council how they would be impacted if the grant program were to be eliminated:

The City Council indicated at a work session in July that it wanted to direct $2.25 million to keep a nonprofit grant program alive over the next four years. That meant adjusting other aspects of the overall $64.5 million one-cent proposal.

Staff had initially proposed allocating $1 million for the design of a new Fire Station 1 out of one-cent. In order to help make room for the nonprofit grant program, the city is planning to rely on its Opportunity Fund to pay for the fire station design work.

An additional $600,000 included in staff’s initial one-cent proposal was intended to help leverage grants for a fiber-optics project. To help make room for the nonprofit grant program, Napier recommended that this also be funded through the Opportunity Fund.

In order to free up more money needed for a $2.25 million nonprofit grant program, staff recommended either reducing the $1.3 million in one-cent funds to help keep swimming pool fees low by half or reducing the amount of money that would go toward facilities maintenance. The City Council indicated at a July work session it wanted to keep the swimming pool subsidy intact and instead reduce the one-cent allocation for public building maintenance.

One-cent for trails, or how Casper is different from Cheyenne

One way Casper has historically used one-cent is to support the Platte River Trails Trust and the work it does to build new trails in the Casper area. The city allocated $1.5 million to the Platte River Trails Trust for the current four-year cycle. That allocation drops to $1 million over the next four years under the one-cent plan the City Council approved Tuesday.

The Platte River Trails Trust has been able to utilize one-cent money it receives from Casper to leverage grants. The organization 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 the community — 32% came directly from one-cent dollars used to leverage grants for the other 68% of the money, Angela Emery, director of the Platte River Trails Trust, told the City Council in July.

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 respects, 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 taxes 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-penny 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 that Platte River Trails Trust got for new trails construction, maintenance and administration during the current four-year one-cent cycle in Casper.

Natrona residents want one-cent to go to streets, water, police and fire

The survey conducted this spring found streets, water, fire and police to be the top priority areas Natrona County residents want to see supported by one-cent tax revenues:

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

The April survey results were similar to those from a 2018 survey in terms of top priorities identified by voters. That 2018 survey found the top four priorities were fire-EMS, street repairs, police, and water and sewer, and about 73% of all of Casper’s share of one-cent revenues from 2018 to 2022 was directed toward these priority areas, according to city staff.

The plan the City Council approved on Tuesday would direct $42.505 million, or about 66% of the $64.5 million total, to the top four priority areas indicated by the spring survey, according to a memo from city staff. That full memo can be reviewed as follows:

Voters will decide on one-cent and another question that could help municipalities raise money

Voters in Natrona County will be asked to consider renewing the one-cent optional sales tax for another four years during the General Election this fall.

The tax has generated over $200 million in revenue shared between Natrona County and the municipalities of Casper, Mills, Evansville, Bar Nunn, Midwest and Edgerton since it was first approved by voters in 1974. The April survey found 62% of Natrona County voters are “very likely” to vote in favor of renewing one-cent this fall.

In addition to the one-cent question, ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 8 will ask voters to consider an amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that Napier has said would help a municipality like Casper find money for maintenance of basic infrastructure.

The amendment to the Wyoming Constitution would 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, Napier said it would be a big benefit to setting up funds to deal with things like long-term infrastructure maintenance.

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

Oil City News has been reporting on the one-cent discussion as it has proceeded in Casper over the past few months. Below are links to some of those stories, from May’s discussion of the one-cent survey up to the City Council’s most recent discussion in July: