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Local Government Fears Loss Of Tax Revenue

Downtown Laramie, Wyoming
Bob Beck
Downtown Laramie

This is a tough financial time for a lot of Wyomingites. But impacts on the general public also impact funding for local governments, which directly impacts a wide variety of services from law enforcement to streets.

Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan is used to worrying about money. The University of Wyoming is the community's largest employer, but UW is tax exempt. That means it doesn't pay property or sales taxes. So how does that impact the bottom line?

The State Division of Economic Analysis says Albany County's assessed valuation, or property tax revenue, for roughly 40,000 people is about $430 million. Campbell County's is slightly bigger, but its assessed valuation is over $4 billion. That makes sales tax a pretty big deal in Laramie. Jordan said after a good economic year, the community finally got its revenue back up to pre-great recession levels. Then COVID-19 hit.

"We've reached out to our local economic development partners, which would be the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance and Laramie Mainstreet Alliance, to ask what they're seeing and they've shared anecdotal observations," said Jordan. "The business activity in Laramie is down somewhere between 50 and 70 percent."

One thing that really hurt Laramie is the university asked students not to return after spring break.

"So our customer base is down dramatically and then layering on top of that, these business closures. So it's kind of a double whammy effect," said Jordan.

Cody Mayor Matt Hall certainly understands. In his town, sales tax revenue was up 9 percent in early 2020. Then COVID-19 hit, Yellowstone National Park closed, and things no longer look rosey.

"So it's gonna be pretty dicey to see what we end up being faced with," said Hall. The governor wants tourism to get rolling in the next week or so, but Hall knows there will be an impact in travel this year. He said they'll go into the summer with a bit of a buffer.

"We've got a decent reserve right now, you know I can definitely see us tapping into that much more than we would have expected," said Hall. "But then again that's why you generate those revenues for situations just like this right?"

It's hard to say how long the impacts will be, but Jerimiah Rieman of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association said the early returns on county sales tax losses haven't been good.

"You know in some areas it's as high as 20 percent. And then counties are beginning to budget around the idea that they may see a reduction of 20 to 25 percent in sales and use tax," said Rieman.

But counties are even more worried about property tax declines and whether or not those in the energy industry will be able to pay their taxes. That could mean a loss of millions, especially in years to come.

Rieman has been lobbying legislators and the governor for help from the federal CARES Act to help local governments. One proposal would provide $70 million dollars through a formula, which could mean some minor relief. The governor has a different plan that could put $300 million dollars into the mix. The problem is the feds might not agree it's a legal way of distributing this money. But if it works, Rieman said that would go a long way towards addressing the hundreds of millions in projected losses to local governments.

"We're getting closer to being able to cover the potential revenue impacts that they've analyzed. Of course, if the virus continues to be a problem and businesses close again, all bets are off," said Rieman.

Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan is nervous about the fall, especially if a big money maker like UW football doesn't return or is limited.

"If we move into the fall and see impacts to students returning and to sports and fall activities at the university, that could be really significant."

That's why Jordan and other government officials plan on retooling their budgets this fall after they get a better sense of what the actual impacts will be.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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