FRESHWATER COUNTY — Doing less with less has been a way of life for various government units and dependent ministries over the past few years. Managing the best way to use available funds required financial skills and an ability to analyze needs versus wants.
“We’re asking, ‘Can we make an old tractor last another year?'” Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo said. “We heard the tractor broke down twice, but we’re going to make it last another year.”
Such is life in these tough financial times caused by a combination of COVID and the lack of oil and gas revenue. Moreover, it is not just the decline in income, it is inflation that has had an impact on the costs of the project. The cost of Phase 2 of the First Security Bank construction project has doubled compared to the cost of Phase 1, Kaumo said.
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Some city employees received a 5% pay raise instead of a 9% COLA increase. Some older city vehicles have not been replaced, Kaumo said, with at least one city vehicle being 30 years old. And then there is always the solution of attrition, because employees who retire or quit are often simply not replaced.
The good news for the city is that there is a slight increase in sales and use tax revenue, up about $200,000 this year. Still, that may not go far, given a budget cut of $7.5 million in the previous fiscal year and an expected budget cut of $10 million in this fiscal year. . Capital projects had to be put on hold, such as water and sewer projects. The city is reviewing grant applications to try to fill some of the gap, with varying degrees of success.
Green River Woes
The financial situation in Green River is no better. Sales tax revenues are now about the same as 17 or 18 years ago, according to City Manager Reed Clevenger. “We let attrition happen,” Clevenger said. “It’s common in government work.”
One of the results of this has been to cause some city employees to do double duty that was not part of their original job description. “Our CFO leads our information technology department,” Clevenger said. “We are looking for people with different skills, ‘cross matrix’, with fewer employees this year than last year.”
Clevenger added that the city is working with different service providers to see where dollars can be pinched. The redesign of streetlights and ball diamond lighting are perfect examples. Working with Rocky Mountain Power to install LED lights at the ball diamonds and elsewhere has reduced the monthly electric bill from $1,800 to just $70, with better ball diamond lighting to boot.
Work that could have been contracted out in the past is now done by city staff. Clevenger described them as “banking aid projects to get by”. Improvements to the recreation center are done by city staff rather than outside contractors, resulting in project cost reductions of $300,000 to $250,000.
Again, contracting out some work, such as weed control, saved the city the cost of hiring another part-time employee.
The City of Green River has also saved money by getting lucky with police recruiting lately, as some of the new officers hired have had work experience in other cities, resulting in a reduction in training costs.
Additionally, Green River officials have been in contact with other Wyoming communities, such as Casper, to benefit from their knowledge base on issues such as planning and zoning research.
Green River anticipates economic growth in the coming years as Exxon, Genesis Alkali and Sisecam are all expanding or planning to do so. Business expansion does not happen without a surrounding community that can provide services, in bad times and good.
“The infrastructure needs to be in place,” Clevenger summed up, keeping economic expansion in mind.
In other words, financially practical or not, city streets and services, such as water and sewer, simply cannot be left to rot due to funding issues.
“We are holding our ground,” Green River Mayor Pete Rust said.
One suggestion from the mayor was more cooperation between different government units in Sweetwater County, such as sharing equipment when possible. “There would be no duplication of equipment and the city would save money,” Rust said.
Notwithstanding all of the above issues, some services have not only been maintained, but have actually been improved over the past year, Rust added. The GR Recreation Center was able to add more swimming lessons, for example, and pickleball opportunities are up.
“We had to be a lot more thoughtful in deciding budget priorities,” said Jeff Smith, chairman of the Sweetwater County commission.
This process just got a little easier. “We’re getting more money than expected in the next fiscal year,” Smith said. “The valuation is at an all-time high.” The county commission chairman added that the “current guess” is that an additional $3 million will be available for the county commission in the next fiscal year.
Yet some capital projects are on hold indefinitely. “The Lagoon Road complex project has been shelved for the foreseeable future,” Smith said.
County commissioners dealt with prioritization using a “Capital Committee” made up of various government and organizational representatives, which listed proposed projects according to priorities ranging from the highest “ We have to do this” until “perhaps indefinite” and “it would be nice to do it someday”.
Commissioner Roy Lloyd echoed many of Smith’s assertions. “Mine valuations are up,” Lloyd said. He added, however, that the commissioners have created a new application form. “We need to know which agencies have the greatest impact on the community,” Lloyd said.
Additionally, Lloyd explained that the Commissioners want component units to tell them what grants they have applied for, what they are doing to be more efficient, and what they have done on their own to get funding, in addition to ask the commissioners for money.
Lloyd added that commissioners are working to put in place a strategic plan for the future, as the county has lacked one for at least the past decade. Discussions on important topics are still ongoing between Commissioners, but a strategic plan will provide clear direction for future budget priorities.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series on the economic impacts that Sweetwater County continues to face.