CASPER — Before dozens of local business leaders, Casper City Manager Tom Forslund acknowledged risk in asking voters how they want their tax dollars spent and getting an answer he may not like.
“If you ask, you better listen and you better follow through,” he said. “Is there some risk? Sure, there’s risk. But it’s the citizens’ money — they are giving it to the government — and we’re saying we’ll spend it on your behalf (the way) you want to spend it.”
Forslund and other city officials are concerned about the fate of Natrona County’s optional 1 percent sales tax, the source of more than 10 percent of Casper’s $151 million budget.
Forslund delivered that message to Casper Area Economic Development Alliance members at a breakfast Wednesday morning, outlining the city’s strategy to educate voters while pleading with the private sector to campaign for the tax’s renewal in November 2010.
New technology and flaws in the presentation and use of sales tax money have given city officials a reason to revamp how they promote passage of the tax, Forslund said.
Forslund’s statements to the cross section of business owners and executives were his most refined public statements to date regarding the 1 percent tax.
“There’s a sense that the sales tax is in trouble — not just because of the tax itself, but a general unrest you’re seeing,” Forslund said. “There’s a lot of frustration and anger. People are expressing that in a number of ways, and one is at the ballot box to local initiatives.”
Forslund outlined two flaws he thought could contribute to voters repealing the tax: a perception that Casper is the sole beneficiary, and the way money is approved by a small committee of local politicians.
“The perception of people reading the paper is that money goes to Casper. Traditionally, precincts outside Casper vote against the 1 percent. They feel it doesn’t benefit them,” Forslund said. “Last election, it was 54-46 during a strong local economy with no organized opposition. So the question is, where are we headed with this election?”
Casper, Natrona County, and each of the outlying towns each receives a piece of the 1-percent pie. Some towns, including Evansville, use the money for day-to-day operations. Casper uses its money to stabilize water rates, fix roads and buy vehicles.
Forslund also said the committee of county commissioners and City Council members that divide up money would be disbanded. Committee members were lobbied hard by people with an interest in projects. Approval of the projects sometimes reflected skillful lobbying efforts instead of a groundswell of support, Forslund said.
The city has been amplifying its efforts over the past few months to educate apprehensive voters about the virtues of the optional sales tax, which has been in effect in Natrona County for 35 years.
Forslund said the city is taking advantage of evolving technology that allows for instantaneous polling and constant communication with voters through Facebook and other social-networking sites.
Though it’s illegal to spend tax dollars stumping for a tax initiative, half a dozen city employees have been meeting on a weekly basis to hash out ways to engage voters by working on a 1-cent logo, surveys and planned outreach efforts using social-networking tools.
Forslund said the idea is to figure out how voters want to spend the 1 percent tax revenue if it’s renewed, and city officials were not lobbying for its passage.
Contact Pete Nickeas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-266-0639.