CASPER, Wyo. — Voters will have a chance Tuesday to weigh in on a proposed one-cent special-purpose sales tax that would fund construction and some increased operations costs for a new 83,000-square-foot Natrona County Public Library facility.
The vote comes in the wake of recommendations from a 3-month-long citizen-led task force this spring, unanimous ballot approval from all six Natrona County municipalities this summer and a flurry of unorganized opposition throughout. A passed measure would launch an additional one-cent sales tax in Natrona County until the project's $29.7 million price tag is raised. Judging from the county's on-the-rise sales tax revenues, that should take about 18 months.
Library officials have repeatedly stressed the current library's already-stretched-thin resources, saying Natrona County's population has more than doubled since the facility's last major expansion in 1952. The proposed new library would more than double the current facility's roughly 33,000 square feet, and would allow for additional expansion if necessary, library Director Bill Nelson said.
Not a new story
A similar library tax measure failed in Natrona County in 2008. The then-proposed new library facility measured 96,000 square feet. Nelson has said that public opinion at the time decried the facility as too big. According to current plans, the proposed library structure would stand at 82,740 square feet.
"We listened to the voters. We needed to reduce the scope, so the size now has been scaled back," Nelson said.
This proposed sixth-cent sales tax is not identical to Casper’s longstanding fifth-cent sales tax. Though sales tax statewide is statutorily set at 4 percent, Natrona County voters have said yes to an optional fifth-cent general purpose sales tax every time it has come up for a vote since 1976. While this fifth-cent sales tax is due for renewal every four years, the proposed library tax is enacted not for a fixed number of years, but for a fixed number of dollars. By law, the one-cent sales tax will expire at the end of the quarter during which the proposed $29.7 million goal is raised. Among the items exempt from the special purpose sales tax are groceries, prescriptions and gas.
"People are concerned that the tax will not go away, and that, somehow, politicians will extend it in some way," Nelson said. "It will go away."
Debunking anti-tax rhetoric has been a main focus for a pro-library political action committee called Citizens for the Library, Nelson said. Campaign manager Pam Walker credited a "very generous community" that donated nearly $78,000 to the PAC, funding nearly 800 yard signs, multiple billboards, direct mailings and a website dedicated to publicizing the PAC's "1-cent x 2 years" motto.
Other library tax dissent revolves around increased costs of operating the new facility. Built into the $29.7 million total, a $4.5 million sinking fund would be expended as necessary in the coming years, should the Natrona County Commission's budget prove unable to cover an additional $550,000 — or about 1 percent of the county's budget — each year in increased personnel and utility costs, according to Nelson.
Should the temporary one-cent sales tax pass Tuesday, library officials have publicly stated that they would employ Wyoming contractors and architects on the project. But exactly what constitutes a Wyoming firm is still unclear, as Nelson has said there are not yet specific criteria for determining just how local is local enough when it comes to keeping the work close to home.
Private donations to the Natrona County Public Library Foundation purchased the 5.2 acres of riverside land at Second and Elm streets in Casper's Old Yellowstone District, where the proposed new library would be constructed. Though the fate of the current library facility is still largely undetermined, Nelson said more than one organization has expressed interest in the building. He added that library trustees are "absolutely committed" to making sure the downtown building is not left vacant.