Cat Urbigkit: Uncovering Sublette’s Secrets

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: "This column is the first step to opening the door and letting the sunshine in an airing of the publics business. But the door needs to be thrown wide open and theyd best prop a rock against it..."

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Cat Urbigkit

June 15, 20228 min read

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There’s bad blood between the Sublette County Commission and Sublette County Attorney Mike Crosson. Crosson claims there is a “deep state” operating in Sublette County and has been vocal with his complaints against a county administrator, sheriff, and other county government leadership. Here’s a backgrounder by the Pinedale Roundup’s Brady Oltmans.

Even Crosson’s annual budget request submitted in April this year included a dressing-down to the board of county commissioners, which Crosson claimed “miserably failed to uphold the three basic conservative Republican core values of low taxes, small government, and fiscal responsibility.”

The conflict with the County Attorney Crosson hasbecome so extreme that the county commission requested the presence of law enforcement in its business meetings when Crosson is in attendance.

That bad blood may be impacting how the Sublette County Commission is responding to a taxation conundrum the county now faces.

Last week, when the Sublette County Commission met for its regularly scheduled commission meeting, on its agenda was an item noted as the “fire mill levy discussion.”

Unable to attend the meeting, I listened to the recording of the meeting that evening, but found the commission never addressed that agenda item.

I attended the commission’s budget workshop the next day and learned the commission had discussed that item behind closed doors ­– during one of four executive sessions held during the business meeting.

The Fire Mill Levy

When Sublette County unified its five local fire departments into one countywide department in 2015, it continued to tax a portion of a mill for fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the county. Residents of the incorporated towns have never been subjected to the county tax.

Sublette County Unified Fire provides fire protection for all the county, including in the three incorporated towns of Pinedale, Big Piney, and Marbleton which receive the service for a token $10 per year per town – similar to the law enforcement services provided by Sublette County to the towns. None of the towns in Sublette County have their own police or fire departments.

But state statutes didn’t envision such a scenario for fire protection. Fire protection could be extended by the towns out into the county, but the statutes didn’t address the reverse.

State law reads: “The board of county commissioners of any county contracting with any municipal corporation, private organization or fire department in return for fire protection service may make an appropriation in its annual budget for the purchase of fire equipment or for the maintenance and support of the fire protection and may annually levy a tax of not more than one (1) mill on the taxable valuation of the property in the county except property within any incorporated city or town or rural fire district.” (emphasis added)

Sublette County is no longer contracting to receive fire protection service, and instead, is providing that service throughout the county by its own department – yet has continued to levy the fire mill tax throughout the unincorporated areas of the county since taking over fire services in 2015.

If the county budget simply included the costs of fire protection services in its overall general fund, there wouldn’t be an issue, but state law also requires that proceeds from the fire mill levy be kept in a special fund that is used solely for the purpose of fire protection.

If the fire mill has been inappropriately levied by the county since 2015, what then? Since the county never levied more than the maximum 12 mills allowed by law, is this all no-harm, no-foul? Probably not.

Hiding Public Business

Last week, county officials conferred in small groups to discuss the fire mill issue – in small enough groups to avoid a quorum which would violate state law requiring deliberations about public business be held in public. Written correspondence viewed by me indicates the issue has been discussed since at least November of 2021 – that’s about eight months of keeping this taxation issue on the down-low.

As the Sublette County Commission prepares to adopt a new budget assessing the maximum 12-mill levy next month under the same structure that is now under question, it has failed to inform its taxpayers that there may be a problem, let alone the details.

To my knowledge, Sublette County hasn’t been threatened with litigation, and there is no legitimate reason whatsoever for Sublette County to keep this issue hidden from its taxpayers for all these months.

Taxation is surely public business, and, as the Wyoming Supreme Court has noted in the past, “The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business.”

Recourse

This column is the first step to opening the door and letting the sunshine in – an airing of the public’s business.

But the door needs to be thrown wide open – and they’d best prop a rock against it because the public is going to want in the room for the discussion.

You can bet that the energy industry that pays more than 90% of the property taxes in Sublette County will take notice. Have they been inappropriately taxed? If so, what is the financial recourse? Those are the tough questions the commission will soon face.

Wyoming’s ad valorem taxation laws provide for refunds in the case of illegal taxation.  Wyoming Statute 39-13-109 (c) reads: “Within one (1) year following an illegal assessment, levy or collection of taxes an action may be filed in district court to enjoin the illegal assessment, levy or collection. The action shall be against the county assessor in the case of an illegal assessment, the governmental entity which levies an illegal levy, the county treasurer if the levy is entered on the tax list, or against the governmental entity if the taxes were collected and paid to the entity,” and “If any person pays any tax, or portion thereof, found to have been erroneous or illegal, the board of county commissioners shall direct the county treasurer to refund the erroneous or illegal payment to the taxpayer.”

As a representative of Cowboy State Daily, I filed a Wyoming Public Records Act request for documents concerning the fire mill levy, including a memorandum from the Sublette County Attorney’s office to the Sublette County Commission – a memorandum which County Attorney Mike Crosson will neither confirm nor deny exists, but does indeed exist.

I also notified the Sublette County Commission Chairman and the Sublette County Clerk that handling this very public business in executive session was improper and requested that the commission release the memo from Crosson’s office and that the entire issue be fully discussed and debated in public.

I am confident they will do so, in part because there are numerous county officials uneasy with how this issue has unfolded.

Which brings me back to the bad blood. We won’t know all the legal issues and advice the County Attorney’s office has provided to the County Commission until that information is publicly disclosed.

If the County Commission is balking from legal advice because it’s tainted by the bad blood with County Attorney Crosson, it needs to get over it and do its duty for the taxpayers of the county.

If the commission feels it needs specialist legal counsel to help work through this, tell the Sublette County Attorney that, in a public meeting. Let Crosson explain why or why not that may be justified. But don’t let bad blood, or the questioning of motivations, hinder resolution of this tough issue.

If the Sublette County Commission has been notified by its legal counsel that it has improperly imposed a mill levy, and yet choses to stick its head in the sand by adopting a new budget with the same tax-levy structure, it will be rightfully accused of a dereliction of its fiduciary duty.

If a previous county attorney made a mistake, or there was an oversight when the county reorganized the fire service in 2015, the county must move forward by acknowledging and correcting the mistake. It must prepare for the potential ramifications in its new budget. It cannot simply hide this public business any longer.

Disclosures:

1.  I work for the Sublette County Commission as an independent contractor, writing and compiling an annual budget report.

2.  I once worked under the supervision of Sublette County Unified Fire (SCUF) Chief Shad Cooper when I served as public information officer for an interagency Covid-19 response team. My son is a wildland firefighter now employed by SCUF. I have great respect for the work of SCUF under Chief Cooper’s leadership.

3.  I have numerous friends and acquaintances working in Sublette County government, and as elected officials. I respect citizens who serve the public as elected officials, and my criticism in this column isn’t a reflection of my personal feelings towards any commissioner. In addition, I hold Sublette County Sheriff KC Lehr in high esteem and believe he runs a top-notch department. (Unlike a previous sheriff.)

4. My dog in this fight – first and foremost – is as a long-time advocate for government transparency.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist