GILLETTE — Twice a day, hundreds of coal miners drive their personal cars and pickups to a parking lot known as the bus barn on the north side of Douglas.
They park their vehicles and pile into buses that head north on Highway 59, crossing from Converse County to Campbell County to go to work at several coal mines.
Converse County officials estimate that 500 county residents commute to work in Campbell County. Though those miners contribute greatly to Douglas' economy, they also create a strain on social services that exceeds their local tax contribution, said Joe Coyne, executive director of the Converse Area New Development Organization.
"There is an impact when you have residents without the tax base to provide necessary services for them," Coyne said. "You must have both the jobs and the tax base. If you have one without the other, you have a lopsided economy."
Gillette and Campbell County are the epicenter of the energy boom in northeast Wyoming. As more jobs are created here, more people are commuting from neighboring counties. It is estimated that 30 percent of Campbell County's work force commutes from neighboring counties.
Those counties say Campbell County commuters and other new residents in the energy industry do bring money to their home communities that otherwise miss out on energy development, such as Douglas, Moorcroft, Sundance and Buffalo. But it doesn't cover the added cost of public services those workers demand.
That sentiment was echoed by Johnson, Sheridan, Crook and Weston counties when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council divided impact money related to the pending construction of the Dry Fork Station power plant in northern Campbell County a week ago.
Coyne said he doesn't believe any of the 1,000-plus Dry Fork Station construction workers will commute the two hours from Douglas. However, he said he believes the construction will draw workers from some coal mine jobs that will be filled by folks who will commute from Douglas to Campbell County.
And for that, Coyne argued that Converse County deserves 6.5 percent of the estimated $21 million in impact assistance money. The Industrial Siting Council saw fit to give Converse County 3 percent.
The council did, however, agree to recalculate the Dry Fork Station impact assistance payments based on an expanded view of factors that impact counties next door to large industrial development. Those communities argue that they feel impacts to their local labor market, recreation and tourism industries and emergency services.
Coyne said the impact money to help mitigate those effects in surrounding communities doesn't measure up to the volume of money Campbell County and its municipalities receive.
Not only will Campbell County and its municipalities share 82 percent of the $21 million Dry Fork Station impact assistance payments, but revenues to the county alone this year from coal, oil and natural gas development total about $221 million, according to Campbell County Assessor Jerry Schatzer.
Add to that sales and use taxes, 6 percent ad valorem tax and high payrolls, and Campbell County's neighbors can't help but feel shortchanged.
"It's overwhelmingly in favor of Campbell County," Coyne said.
Bursting at the seams with energy development impacts and still contributing more than 21 percent of revenues to the state, Gillette and Campbell County make no apologies for their mineral wealth — no matter how lopsided it may seem from the over-the-fence perspective. In fact, a state economist disagrees with Coyne's analysis that the negative impact/positive revenue influx to neighboring counties doesn't balance out.
Buck McVeigh, director of the state's division of economic analysis, said those Campbell County coal miners and energy workers who commute from Converse County do contribute significantly to their local economy.
"They pay property taxes. And if they're commuting daily, they're still patronizing local retail establishments in Converse County when they're home," McVeigh said.
McVeigh said the only significant tax leakage from Converse County, or any other county that workers commute from, would occur if those workers only rented and didn't buy homes in those neighboring counties. That situation seems to be playing out in western Wyoming, where a significant number of workers in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline natural gas fields commute to Sublette County but rent in Sweetwater County.
"We do know this: High-paying mining (oil, natural gas, coal, construction) jobs are somewhat problematic in that they pay an exorbitant salary in comparison to other sectors, and it draws people from those other sectors," McVeigh said. "That creates work force shortage in those other sectors and dilutes diversification."
Coyne said the city of Douglas has documented the loss of at least 10 city employees to Campbell County's mining industry. He also said Converse County experienced population growth of 187 people from 2003 to 2004, representing a 1.5 percent increase. During the same time, Campbell County grew by 231 people, a .63 percent increase.
Coyne said that if 200 more people move to Douglas as a result of the Dry Fork Station construction, they might generate an additional $240,000 in annual property taxes. If an additional 800 people move to Campbell County for the construction, Campbell County could receive $3.5 million more in annual property taxes, which includes an estimated $2.5 million for the power plant itself.
"In my opinion, while we may have the workers — and that's a good thing — we also need to provide those workers services, and we don't have the industrial tax base," Coyne said.