Here in Johnson County, we like to think of ourselves as the embodiment of the old west cowboy. Rugged individualists that boot strap our way to success.
Recent news about local and state budget woes will likely challenge that notion unless we decide to take action.
Two weeks ago, this newspaper reported on the toll that budget cuts have taken on the Johnson County Road and Bridge Department. They have taken a $1 million hit over the years and that has meant less and less maintenance for our county’s infrastructure.
This is not the fault of road and bridge, nor the fault of the Johnson County commission. The commissioners have been forced to make difficult decisions about how to spend taxpayer money in light of vastly diminishing revenues. There is no magic wand here. When revenues decline, so must services.
And here’s the quandary.
We all know that if you fail to maintain physical assets, they will degrade. And, over time they will need to be replaced. Replacement costs vastly exceed the total cost of maintenance.
Looking down the road, we here in Johnson County are facing some dire choices. Before long, if we follow the same trajectory, our roads and bridges and other physical infrastructure will be beyond repair. And the cost to replace them will be staggering.
We are at a crossroads.
We can sit back and wait, hoping upon hope that coal, oil and gas will make a comeback. In the past, this has happened at the most opportune times.
In 1996, our county valuation was well under $100 million. We were in the midst of a nearly 10-year recession that had ravaged the state and county. And, the Wyoming Legislature was considering implementing an income tax.
By the early 2000s, methods of extracting coal bed methane became more viable and a new boom began. By 2008, county valuation soared to over $1 billion.
Can we afford to bet on another energy boom? The likelihood of an energy boom in the next few years is minimal. Or would we rather pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and take proactive steps to maintain and keep our services?
It’s time to make some tough decisions. The only new revenue ideas enacted by the Wyoming Legislature in the last 20 years were a fuel tax and an additional lodging tax.
Meanwhile the residents of Johnson County have voted to tax ourselves to build new schools, enact a solid waste district, completely remodel and expand our library, completely overhaul several roads in the city of Buffalo and enact a senior citizens services district.
At a bare minimum, the legislature would do well to allow counties, cities and towns to further tax themselves to avoid a financial cliff in the next few years. We would hope the legislature would enact revenue measures to shore up statewide funding as well.
If we wait, we will blow through all our state’s reserves and face a financial meltdown that most of us have never seen before.
It’s time to cowboy up, Wyoming, and pay our own share or watch our infrastructure crumble and services disappear.