FCAG Mayors and State legislators discuss EMS, airport districts

(Riverton, WY) Current and newly-elected mayors and state legislators engaged in several topics of discussion last Thursday at the December meeting of the Fremont County Association of Governments (FCAG), with EMS and airport districts included in the conversations.

Along with standing mayors and mayors-elect, also present were Senator Cale Case and House Representatives Lloyd Larsen, Pepper Ottman, Ember Oakley, and Sarah Penn who gave information, updates, and comments on bills that are forthcoming at the 2023 Wyoming Legislative Session in January.

A tool for supporting local airports

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On FCAG’s regular agenda was a discussion on the formation of Airport Special Districts which will be introduced again in the next Legislative session. Riverton City Administrator Kyle Butterfield, who also serves on the Wyoming Airports Coalition Board, said that the legislation “allows communities to have another tool in their toolbox when it comes to supporting airports,” he said.

“Like any special district, it could include the entire county or specific portions of the county,” Butterfield continued. “It could be something FCAG could talk about and the mayors can decide if that’s something they wanted to pursue. Then it would have to go as a ballot initiative to the people, and the people would have to decide if that is something they’d want to pursue.”

The Airport Special District would be a property tax mill levy. Butterfield mentioned that two legislative sessions ago, the bill came forward and fell by just one vote. “So the coalition felt it was a good time to bring it forward again,” he said. “The value I see is that it puts the decision in each respective community. If there is a need to fund airports…whether it’s a commercial service or general aviation airport…the boundary of the district could be formed and then taken to the populace to decide if it’s of value.”

Lander Mayor Monte Richardson’s concern was that “we’re going back to so many medical districts…looking for an ambulance and hospital medical districts,” he said. “We’re putting other things up against our taxes, and it bothers me that we’re going to get stretched so thin, and too many things up to the vote of the people.”

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Outgoing Dubois Mayor John Meyer said that he would be out of office soon, but weighed in with his concerns, saying that it would have to depend on the terms of the district. “We have an airport here in Dubois; it’s not a commercial airport,” he said. “I don’t believe that would be something I would be for, but because we’re kinda halfway between Riverton and Jackson, a lot of our folks fly out of Jackson. So to have them pay a tax or mill levy to an airport in Riverton doesn’t make a lot of sense to Dubois. If the money that is being collected comes back to Dubois, that may be something the people may look at…but if it’s just to the Riverton airport, I’m not for that.”

“From what I understand, this is not saying you have to have a district,” said Riverton Mayor-elect Timothy Hancock. “This is leaving it up to the voters whether we want to have a district. That’s no different than what we talked about when it was the half-cent (sales tax). It wasn’t necessarily saying, ‘We’re going to do the half-cent’ when it was in front of the Commissioners. The question was: Should the voters be able to vote on it? If the voters don’t like that, great; that’s fine. But we’re just talking about legislation that’s going to make it so that voters can decide.”

Meyer pointed out that the half-cent was a countywide vote and that initially, only one precinct voted for it. “The rest of the county voted against it, so you can’t say, this is what the county wants,” he said. “There are more people in Riverton and Lander, obviously, but to have two municipalities vote on something that the rest of the county is required to buy into?”

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“I’m not saying it was a bad thing,” Meyer continued. “The numbers eventually played out, and more people in the county voted yes than no. But it wasn’t a true vote of each individual town or municipality. So I think if Riverton wants to tax Riverton, more power to them. That’s up to them, and I can guarantee that if it’s a sales tax thing I’ll be spending some money in Riverton to add to that. But to make it a countywide thing, it doesn’t really correctly show the true will of the county.”

Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith, who sits on the board of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM), asked Butterfield if he had presented the information to WAM, to which Butterfield responded that the Wyoming Airport Coalition had been in contact with the Legislative Affairs Committee and hadn’t yet sent it to the entire WAM board, but ensured that he would make that happen.

Sustainable funding for ambulance services

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Senator Cale Case and Representative Lloyd Larsen are co-sponsors of a bill that would allow for the establishment of a county EMS district. Both had been working with Commissioner Mike Jones and former Fremont County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger in the process.

“We’re trying to get support from other legislators…we hope from the County Commission as well as WAM,” Case said. “The bill, in essence, would allow county commissioners to establish a district much like a solid waste district, but it wouldn’t allow them to impose a tax.”

Following the Solid Waste District model, the county commissioners would propose the EMS district, appoint a board, and have control over the board “so it wouldn’t be a district standing entirely on its own,” Case said. “The actual funding of the district would be accomplished by requiring a vote from the people…honestly, there is no other way to get around the mill levy limitations we have in our Constitution for our counties.”

Mayor Highsmith asked if the district would float countywide, to which the Senator replied that it would have to be established through the county’s appointment, again referring to the model of the solid waste district.

“The district does not have to be the entire county,” Case said. “It seems likely to me that it would be…but for tax purposes, the tax would only be levied upon the property within the district, and the district could be established to be something less than the county. I’m not sure there’s a reason to do that, but it’s not designed at the municipal level.”

Case continued that only the county has the authority to levy taxes, saying there wouldn’t be enough “horsepower” or accommodation in the municipalities. “You run into problems of the boundaries of the municipalities, and what about the boundaries in between? Now you’re possibly talking about a joint powers board. But you’re levying taxes outside of the city…and that, to me, brings in the county. There are districts that do that…but the city has to enter into a taxing joint powers board, which means the counties will be involved because you’re talking about county property…so I just don’t see a way to do that at a city level that would have a meaningful purpose for the entire county.”

Representative Lloyd Larsen said that it was important to understand that the State Health Taskforce has had the intent of solving the problem of sustainable funding of emergency medical services across Wyoming.

“There was some thought that the state will come in and provide this funding,” Larsen said. “You know as well as I do that It might show up today and be gone tomorrow; it’s never going to be consistent. Our approach to this with Jones and Harnsberger was how we give the power to the local people to decide if they want ambulance services or not. The difference between this type of special district and others is that the commissioners can go ahead and make the determination if they want to have a district, pick the board members…the board members come back with a recommendation on a mill levy, then that would go to the public for a vote.”

“At the end of the day, if the people of the county feel the need to have an ambulance service, they’ll fund it,” Larsen continued. “If they don’t, then they can figure that out. If that’s throwing them in the back of a pickup and hauling them to Hot Springs County, or Riverton from Shoshoni then I guess that’s what they do. But at some point, we have to belly up to the bar and be willing to pay for ambulance services.”

Highsmith agreed, but said that “we don’t have a lot of love in Shoshoni from Fremont County on our ambulance service here,” he said. “That’s a concern and then maybe this wouldn’t go countywide, but it might go Shoshoni-wide?”

Larsen responded that Commissioner Jones put in a regionalization pilot project opportunity through the ARPA funds that would put an [ambulance] annex in Shoshoni that would make it useful for that region, referring to Waltman, Lysite, and “that ‘no man’s land’ which is a region they think is viable,” he said.

“We all have an interest in ambulance services throughout the county,” Senator Case added. “What we don’t have is sustainable funding. We don’t know how this will play out in the future, but literally, if the county is included in the paying of taxes, then the county people…including Shoshoni and everywhere else…are deserving of the benefits. I think that makes it more likely for success and a better program countywide.”

Kyle Lehto, HDR Engineer with the county’s Transportation department said it would be critical that the Tribes were involved, having representation of both Tribal Business Councils on the board as well, so that everyone has a voice.

“As was mentioned, this needs to be a countywide thing that everybody has buy-in for,” Lehto said. “I don’t think anybody wants to get to the situation where somebody in Ethete has to throw someone in the back of their car and head to Riverton, Lander, or Thermopolis for that matter…just like Shoshoni; what about Jeffrey City or Lysite or any of those small places? You may not be able to fund it, but I bet if you have a district, you have a heck of a lot more teeth to get ambulances and keep them running in those smaller places. Or who knows, fund a helicopter that runs clear around the county.”

Representative Pepper Ottman added that the conversations regarding ambulance services have been very good. “I’ve been able to get to a few FCAG meetings where the ambulance companies and the mayors have been involved,” she said. “It’s very interesting, and definitely a problem because of equipment, personnel, and because of all the mileage between the municipalities. This is a good point of conversation and definitely something positive. At least we’re moving forward in finding a solution.”

Others listening in and contributing to the conversations were Lander Chamber Director Owen Sweeney, Wind River Visitors Council Executive Director Helen Wilson, Kevin Kershisnik of IDEA, Inc., Community Prevention Specialist Tauna Groomsmith of the Fremont County Prevention Program, LIFT Committee Chairperson Andrew Gramlich, and Mariah Smith of the Riverton Help Center.

FCAG generally meets on the 4th Thursday of each month; however, due to scheduling conflicts, the next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, January 19 at 10 a.m. in Lander. For more information, visit fcagovts.com or contact Gary Michaud at [email protected]

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