Commissioners vote to alter SCUF funding

PINEDALE – The Sublette County Unified Fire funding process has changed.

Following discussions over the past year and an executive session earlier this month, the Board of Sublette County Commissioners voted 4-0 to dissolve the fire mill levy and move all SCUF funding to the county’s general budget. Commission chair Joel Bousman abstained from the vote because he felt he didn’t understand the issue clearly enough.

By being paid through the county’s general budget, SCUF will be classified the same as any other department within the county.

This move does not indicate shifts in SCUF funding amounts or impact SCUF’s functions. The vote came as a result of a potential violation of state statute as interpreted by the county attorney’s office.

Prior to the unification of Pinedale, Big Piney/Marbleton fire departments, the county and the designated Joint Powers Board worked under a general agreement. As part of that agreement, the county was prohibited from collecting a mill within the towns for fire protection. Upon unification in 2015, however, the county has not received fire services from municipalities so the previous state statute no longer applies, the county attorney’s office concluded.

The county clerk’s office held a different interpretation of the state statute. County clerk Carrie Long said she brought up a change in terminology to Rep. Albert Sommers that could effectively solve the issue. Sommers took this to the Wyoming State Legislative Service Office’s legal counsel. It was that counsel’s interpretation that changing the law would violate the municipalities’ constitutionally limited 8 mils because of a prior court’s ruling that fire protection is a city function under its 8 mils.

“We, as a board, decided that policy issues like that have to be held in the public so we invited the mayors and town attorneys to participate in this discussion,” commission chair Joel Bousman said.

Pinedale Mayor Matt Murdock, Big Piney Mayor Tyler Maxfield and Pinedale town attorney Ed Wood all attended the meeting. Marbleton attorney Thayne Peterson called in and asked questions over the phone. Former county clerk Mary Lankford was also present to provide background information.

Bousman, Murdock and others mentioned the desire to seek the opinion of the state’s attorney general’s office. Because an opinion likely wouldn’t be offered until after the upcoming budget was finalized on July 5, the board decided to move forward with its motion without reaching out to the attorney general.

Sublette County Chief Deputy Attorney Clayton Melinkovich, who represented the county attorney’s office during the process, presented the legal case for eliminating the fire mill levy and reiterated the attorney office’s position during Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting.

Melinkovich was questioned twice about double taxation. Commissioner Sam White asked directly and Commissioner Dave Stephens pressed Melinkovich again because Stephens said he was the one who would have to explain the situation to citizens.

Melinkovich brought up the example of the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office for comparison. He said the county, out of its 12 mils, pays for the sheriff’s office that serves the entire county. Based on an agreement, each town pays a nominal amount for those services. (Currently, towns pay $10 a year for SCUF services.) In this case, residents pay the county mil and the town mil – meaning it’s not a double taxation because of an overlay in services.

“The county has the ability to tax the town for its general mil levy and that’s what is occurring,” Melinkovich said. “It’s not effectively a double tax.”

Commissioners, Melinkovich, mayors and town legal counsel all agreed and reiterated the change was purely based upon statute and all spoke highly of SCUF services. Melinkovich eventually said SCUF is a great structure and the county attorney’s office simply wanted to make sure it was adhering to state statute.

Maxfield reiterated his appreciation for SCUF and that the “wheel was never broken,” so he was fine with seeing a few tweaks to the system as long as services were maintained at their current levels. Murdock conveyed his main concern with the board’s vote dealt with “protecting the sanctity” of the equipment the towns gave to SCUF.

Murdock also pointed out this is a unique situation. Sublette is the only county with a unified fire department and no municipal fire department.

Fire warden Shad Cooper was present for the meeting but did not speak.

Financially, this should make a nominal difference to residents.

Following the vote, it was confirmed the county discussed possible reimbursements. While the exact amounts are unclear, an evaluation from the county attorney’s office estimated the county has collected approximately $11,197,000 between 2015 and 2021 under its “fire protection” line item.

The difference in taxation under the new funding model through the county’s general budget is estimated to make a difference of about $36, depending on the assessed household evaluation.


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