Jan 27, 2015

Counties seek dollars, aid from state

County officials from around the Big Horn Basin have given state lawmakers their wish list for the current session.

At a meeting with local legislators last month, commissioners and other elected officials from Park County and the rest of the Basin asked lawmakers to give their counties:
  • more money in general.

  • the ability to get state worker’s compensation coverage for themselves.

  • the ability to put county employees in the state’s insurance pool.

  • free public access to parts of Buffalo Bill State Park.
Getting more state dollars wa
s one of the counties’ priorities at the Dec. 18 meeting.

Gov. Matt Mead has recommended that legislators send $25 million to the state’s cities, towns and counties in the supplemental budget.

“The $25 million is wonderful. We (commissioners) are going to stand to that,” said then-Washakie County Commissioner Ron Harvey, whose term ended at the end of December.

Park County Commissioner Tim French
However, Park County Commissioner Tim French said he’d like to see more money and brought up the state’s reserve accounts that are being saved for a “rainy day.”

“A lot of the counties, it’s raining out there in the counties,” French said. “I think there should be more money sent back to the counties. It’s the county’s money that’s sent to the state.”

He urged lawmakers to “share the wealth” and go above the $25 million recommended by the governor.

“It kind of chaps my hide to have to go down to (the State Loan and Investment Board) and beg for our money back,” French said.

Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf later suggested the state should “give every county $100 million (in a trust) and let us use the earnings from that so wouldn’t have to come down to Cheyenne and ask for money.”

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said the state’s reserve accounts would be discussed during the session.

“The discussion’s going to be, how much do we want to keep in a rainy day account, knowing that there’s peaks and valleys?” Coe said.

He and others noted that plummeting oil prices are going to impact state and local governments’ revenue.

Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley
Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, expressed a willingness to open the state’s coffers to help out struggling local governments.

“The state is only as strong as our counties and towns,” he said.

Washakie County Commissioner Aaron Anderson suggested that, as counties’ buildings and roads deteriorate and the state sits on its savings, Wyoming is losing buying power to inflation. In his county, Anderson wonders if some paved roads will have to be torn up and returned to gravel to save money.

“It’s in the public eye now that that (state’s primary reserve) fund is up to almost $2 billion, and there are infrastructure needs,” said Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall.

Commissioners also asked the lawmakers to allow them and county assessors, attorneys, treasurers, clerks and clerks of district court, to become eligible for the state’s workers’ compensation insurance. For reasons unknown to the officials at last month’s meeting, sheriffs and coroners are the only elected county officials currently eligible for the insurance. (All county employees are covered.)

“We are working on behalf of the county, and there’s always a chance there can be an accident,” said Grosskopf. Noting that the coroner is eligible and commissioners are not, Grosskopf asked, “Why? Is he out in the field more than the county commissioners?”

Coe is sponsoring a bill to make the county employees eligible for the coverage, with Peterson, Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, among the bill’s co-sponsors.

“It’s one of those bills that’s going to take some political courage to step up and do,” Peterson said in December, explaining that it might look like “we’re putting a feather in our own cap.”

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services estimates that, at current salary rates, adding the coverage to the other elected county officials will cost the counties around $250,800 a year. For Park County, it would cost around $12,700 per year.

Along the same lines, counties are also looking for some state help on health insurance, wanting the opportunity to have their county employees pay into and be covered under the state’s pool.

“We need options. As county government, it’s getting more and more expensive,” Harvey said. One county, he said, can’t afford to insure its employees.

“I think there should be more money sent back to the counties. It’s the county’s money that’s sent to the state,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French.

Harvey didn’t know how many counties would choose to join the state’s plan, but he said if nothing else, the option would give the counties better leverage when talking to insurance companies.

The state gave school districts the option to join years ago and, “if you allowed the schools to come in, why not the counties?” asked Grosskopf.

Peterson warned that being a part of the state insurance system might “remove one more arrow from your quiver” when counties come asking for state money, saying lawmakers’ reply might be, “The state’s helping you out with your insurance.”

“It’s an arrow we’d gladly give up,” said Hall.

Fellow Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden also asked the lawmakers to support a bill that would allow free access to the undeveloped portions of Buffalo Bill State Park on the South Fork. Park administrators recently began charging for access in the area.

“It’s very important to us in Park County ... because it’s just not right,” Tilden said.

Krone is sponsoring a bill that would give the state parks director the ability to waive fees in certain areas.

Park, Big Horn, Hot Springs and Washakie county commissioners plan to further lobby the Big Horn Basin’s lawmakers at a dinner they’re hosting Wednesday night at the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne.

The tab for the annual dinner averages around $600 and is split between the four counties. It’s a chance for commissioners to get lawmakers’ undivided attention and commissioners have said it’s worthwhile.

Park County Commissioner French — who’s taken ribbing from fellow commissioners for voting against the dinner contract in the past — “abstained” from voting when it came up at the commission’s Dec. 16 meeting. Abstentions are typically only used for conflicts of interest.

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