- Associated Press - Thursday, March 19, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Niobrara County government workers don’t get the perks enjoyed in other places.

They don’t receive health insurance. The county has not bought a new vehicle in five years for the road and bridge crew or the sheriff’s office, and the cars have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles.

That’s because the rural county in eastern Wyoming, population 2,456, is receiving 24 percent less in state funds during the current two-year funding cycle than in the previous one, said Niobrara County Commission Chairman Richard Ladwig.

Ladwig, who also is president of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, welcomes a legislative study that will soon examine the formula that distributes state money to cities, towns and counties. The formula is supposed to ensure a fair distribution of state funds between wealthier and poorer local governments, but in the case of Niobrara County, it is not working, Ladwig said.

“We would like to see a steady stream” of funds, he said. “Something that’s a guarantee.”

Wealthy Wyoming counties — Campbell, Sublette, Converse, Sweetwater and Natrona — have higher property and sales tax receipts, thanks largely to minerals development, said Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Interim Committee, which will study the issue.

Poorer communities tend to have lower populations and agriculture-based economies. Many of the expenses in agriculture are tax-free, Madden said. Those communities include Niobrara, Goshen, Weston, Crook, Hot Springs and Big Horn counties.

“We’ve got counties that have $100 million saved in various accounts that’s directly resultant from (fossil fuels activity),” he said. “Then you have other counties that are challenged both from the property tax point of view and from the sales tax point of view.”

Lawmakers have in the past used a hardship funding formula to provide extra money to local governments in areas without minerals, Madden said. They did not use it this year when they passed a supplemental budget that provided $8 million for the governments.

Madden said that he tried to convince lawmakers to use the hardship formula but they opted instead to provide additional funding for smaller communities.

The hardship formula focuses on disparities in property-tax receipts, but local governments also depend on sales taxes, Madden said.

Doling out money to local governments can get complicated, Madden said.

For instance, the bulk of sales and use taxes are generated from energy development in unincorporated parts of the counties, since mining and drilling usually occur outside of city limits.

Gov. Matt Mead requested $25 million for local governments in the supplemental budget adopted recently by the Legislature.

But with energy prices - and revenues - down, the Legislature’s original draft budget provided no money for local governments. After amending and negotiating the budget, lawmakers provided $8 million.

That money is new. Last year, the Legislature provided $175 million for the current two-year funding cycle.

Mead, in a press conference hours before the Legislature adjourned, said he hopes for additional money for local governments.

“I understand with $50 (a barrel) oil there’s challenges, but I do think that if we want to make sure we stay strong that we have to continue to develop our towns and our counties and infrastructure in our towns and our counties,” he said. “And so hopefully as we go into next session we’ll have better oil prices and we’ll be able to address that in a bigger way.”

Cities and towns received 63 percent of the $8 million designated for local governments. Counties received the remainder, said Shelley Simonton, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.

As part of the review of the funding formula, lawmakers will consider all forms of revenue local governments can receive.

“I’m excited to talk about that with them so we can have a holistic view of what our opportunities are,” Simonton said.

Instead of the typical hardship formula, lawmakers gave municipalities with 35 or fewer residents $5,000 each. Those with between 35 and 1,000 residents received $18,000 each. The remaining money will be divided among all the towns and cities.

Money for counties will not be distributed by the hardship formula. They state’s 23 counties will each receive $19,304. The remaining money will be distributed by population, said Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

Most counties are happy with the hardship formula but two counties have received less money under it - Weston and Niobrara counties, Obermueller said.

“I think really when you get down to it, it’s the hardship formula is not working quite right,” he said.

Obermueller said the issue of fair funding to local governments goes back to at least the 1960s.

“The issue has been going on forever and probably will for the rest of our lives,” he said. “Every five or six years it seems prudent to go back and take a look and see if we can tweak and update.”


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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