ROCK SPRINGS — The governing body of Rock Springs is calling for quick, decisive action on a sixth cent tax initiative; requesting the city's fair share of the total requested; and asserting the right to decide which of its projects will be put before voters.
At Tuesday night’s Rock Springs City Council meeting, council members approved as correspondence a letter sent from Mayor Tim Kaumo to the Sweetwater County Commission. The letter outlines Rock Springs' requests, assertions and concerns in regards to the specific purpose tax proposal that has been in the works since July of 2019.
The letter was composed by Mayor Kaumo and Councilman Keaton West with the approval of the full council. West serves as the council’s liaison for the sixth cent tax. Kaumo said the commission has received the letter, dated Dec. 20, 2019, but the Rock Springs City Council had not received a formal response as of Thursday afternoon.
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Commissioners Roy Lloyd and Lauren Schoenfeld both said it is time to make decisions and move forward on the sixth penny tax proposal. Schoenfeld, the county’s liaison on the issue, said she intends to put the matter on the agenda for the next commission meeting, saying the group needs to focus on the final number agreed upon and decide how to break that down between the entities involved.
When Sweetwater County municipalities and other entities first met in August to share their wish lists of potential projects and estimated costs to put on a sixth cent ballot initiative, the total came out to more than $228 million. After rounds of cuts, the amount was reduced to $153 million. West said that Rock Springs agreed with the county commission that the new total was still way too high. The addition of other county entities requesting project funds, however, brought the total back up to $182 million at the Dec. 5 commission meeting.
County municipalities and other organizations have come before the county commission twice so far as a collective group to present potential projects for a sixth cent tax initiative as well as estimated costs. At the Dec. 5 presentation to the commission, discussion focused on specific projects and/or sponsorships and whether commission members seemed to agree with them, according to West. No decision was made on the total tax to be proposed or how that would be divided among entities. At that time, West started thinking about drafting a letter to the county commission.
The topic of a letter came up in discussions at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Rock Springs City Council. West provided an update and shared his thoughts on the current status of the sixth cent tax process, followed by a recommendation that Kaumo write a letter to the Sweetwater County Commission if the council was in agreement, which it was.
"While we reason with you in the difficult task you face in organizing this process, we also believe it is time to march forward and decisively put together, with fairness, the distribution amounts that will allow the incorporated municipalities and the people in which they serve, to finalize their lists respectively," the letter states in the opening paragraph.
It goes on to say that Rock Springs' support is crucial to passage of the tax; that with a total of 54% of the county's population, the city deserves a fair share of the total amount proposed; and that the city will determine which Rock Springs projects will appear on the ballot. It also notes that Rock Springs had reduced its projected total by $18.3 million after cuts were encouraged.
The letter states, "The number you're willing to float on the ballot needs to be determined, as does the decision on how to divvy those dollars to the individual incorporated municipalities. At that point, we will determine which of our projects to put before the public, and we will decide how much goes towards our infrastructure versus quality of life needs. The process in determining how these all may be listed on the ballot warrants your insight and guidance; however, determining which projects make it to this point simply resides on the governing body wherein the people have elected to represent them."
In order for the initiative to make it to the polls, the letter referred to the fact that it must pass by a two-thirds vote of the incorporated municipalities as well as have the approval of the county commission.
"Your board cannot move this forward without the municipalities, and correspondingly, we cannot without your board," the letter says.
All county commissioners and Rock Springs council members were given the opportunity by email to respond to Mayor Kaumo's letter and the sixth cent tax issue.
West said from conversations he's had with a few county commissioners, he thinks the letter was well-received. Rock Springs Councilwomen Glennise Wendorf and Jeannie Demas and Councilman David Halter expressed individual support for the letter. Halter said the city's list of projects is fair and needed in the community. All three expressed the need for a decision soon.
Before municipalities can move forward, they need to know the distribution amount that each will be working with in order to finalize lists, Demas said.
Commissioner Jeffrey Smith said that Kaumo makes a clear case for funding the sixth penny projects that Rock Springs has proposed, and that dividing funds by population is a sound plan, especially for those living in Rock Springs, but that the commission has a responsibility to all county residents.
As an example, Smith said that even though Wamsutter only has an estimated population of 439 people, not quite 1% of the county's population, Wamsutter and the surrounding area account for more than $38.5 million of the county's $169 million assessed in taxes, which comes out to be about 22.7% of the tax dollars for the county.
He also referred to the needs of the small town of Granger.
"Should the 133 residents of Granger not have an adequate sewer system or drinking water?" Smith asked. "Clearly, that isn't the case. The job that I and my fellow commissioners have been elected to do is to look out for the entirety of Sweetwater County."
Smith also said that the tone of the mayor's letter felt as though he was giving commissioners instructions on how to handle the decision-making process and its timing.
"No one likes to be told what to do or when to do it, but there is no offense taken," Smith said. "We understand the process and the timeline we need to meet and are confident we will take care of both. That it doesn't meet the expectations of others isn't as concerning as getting the best outcome for all involved."
West added that municipalities have spent countless hours on project lists, sponsorships and priorities. When county commissioners decide on a final cap amount and how they intend to distribute that amount, the municipalities will be able to make final decisions on what to sponsor, prioritize, and cut deeper if need be, he said.