GILLETTE – Campbell County voters will decide Aug. 17 whether they want Gillette College to become its own community college district. If approved, a board of seven trustees, who will be elected in that special election, will get to set a tax to help fund the district.
Commissioner Del Shelstad has suggested dissolving a couple of special districts and using their mill levies to fund the college. He floated this idea on Facebook earlier this month, and it has been met with criticism from other entities involved.
He wanted to find a way for Gillette College to get a mill levy without increasing the tax burden on local industry. He said that while he supports the college becoming its own district and having local control, he does not like the additional tax that would come with it.
“Let’s get rid of the cemetery district and fund it jointly through the county and the city (of Gillette),” Shelstad wrote. “This would save the taxpayers 3 mills.”
Cemetery districts are allowed to levy up to 3 mills. The Campbell County Cemetery District has regularly kept its under 1 mill.
He also suggested selling the hospital to the highest bidder.
“A large hospital corporation would turn our hospital around for the better for our community. This would save an additional 3 mills,” Shelstad wrote, referring to the tax Campbell County Health assesses each year.
He suggested adding the dissolution of the cemetery and hospital districts to the ballot for the special election in August.
“It may not be the best plan, but for my money at least, I have come to the table with something outside of just raising the mill levy an additional 4 mills,” he wrote.
Unsurprisingly, Shelstad’s idea does not sit well with those in the cemetery district.
“He continues to create and fabricate this fantasy of his, and we’ve never understood why, but that’s what he does,” said Jim Hastings, president of the Campbell County Cemetery District board.
Darin Edmonds, the district’s sexton, said dissolving a special district “is difficult at best,” and that it’s “not a realistic hypothetical possibility” in this situation.
The dissolution of a special cemetery district is governed by the Special District Elections Act. To initiate the process, there must be a petition signed by 25% of the voters who own at least 25% of the assessed valuation of property within the district.
It’s that second requirement — 25% of the assessed valuation — that makes it nearly impossible, Edmonds said.
“Every human being in Campbell County that’s a voter wouldn’t own 25 percent (combined),” he said, adding that’s because “86 percent of everything that’s valued here is underground. It’s not owned by a person.”
Commissioners do have the power to begin the dissolution process, but only if the district fails to elect district directors, if the area is not inhabited or if the district fails to comply with department of audit reporting requirements. Once the process has begun, a report must be prepared that identifies how the district’s assets would be handled. Only then can it go to an election.
Josh McGrath, chairman of the Our Community Our College PAC, wrote a letter to the editor in response to Shelstad’s post, saying that an independent college district can exist alongside other county services.
“With great respect to County Commissioner Del Shelstad and his service to our community, residents DO NOT need to cut funding to other key community resources to support an independent Gillette College,” McGrath wrote.
The election is about building a stronger community, not about cutting funding, McGrath added.
Edmonds said dissolving the cemetery district would not save local taxpayers 3 mills.
“It would save the taxpayers 0.9 mills. The other 2.1 are not assessed,” he said, adding that it’s impossible to take a special district’s mills and give it to another entity.
“If the cemetery district doesn’t have (the mill levy), no one has it,” he said.
Hastings said he hasn’t heard from anyone, other than Shelstad, about this issue.
“There’s hardly any discussion, and it’s all created by the misinformation that Del Shelstad continues to publish,” Hastings said. “He doesn’t want the truth, he wants his story.”
Shelstad suggested dissolving the cemetery district and funding it with the city through a joint powers board, similar to Cam-plex and the Campbell County Fire Department. This would require both entities to increase their budgets, Edmonds said.
“I don’t know that the city and county have a whole extra amount of money,” he said.
Commissioner Colleen Faber said she doesn’t think a joint powers cemetery board would be possible. Among the largest challenges would be figuring out how to divide the finances between the city and county. Mount Pisgah, by far the biggest and most costly cemetery, is within city limits. But there are several other cemeteries that are out in the county.
Shelstad also said that in researching state statute, commissioners have the right to veto line items in special district budgets.
“Rather than bring it to the people that we get rid of the cemetery district, maybe we start scrutinizing all of our districts more,” he said.
Edmonds said this is “simply not true.” Commissioners can only do that for special districts that they appoint board members for, such as the Weed and Pest District.
Shelstad said that when he first became a commissioner, he heard about the cemetery district and its reserve account. He put that in the back of his mind, but recently started looking more closely at it when he realized that more than half of the district’s mill levy goes toward reserves.
The cemetery’s FY2021 budget was about $4.5 million and about $3.5 million of that came from the mill levy, which was at 0.86 mills.
Of the money raised by the mill levy, $1.464 million went toward operating costs, while $1.955 million went toward the district’s reserve account. In FY20, $2.15 million of the levy’s $4.16 million was set aside for reserves.
“If you’ve got already $50 million in reserves, why do you keep assessing part of your mill levy for your savings account?” he asked.
Edmonds said the cemetery district has about $29.2 million in reserves, and a little more than half of that is set aside for the construction of Mount Nebo, the cemetery that will be built for when Mount Pisgah reaches full capacity.
There also are reserve accounts for emergency costs, the maintenance of the district’s water system and beautification.
Faber also questioned the amount in these accounts. She wondered if the district is at “a point where they don’t need to put money in reserves.”
“That’s where I’d ask the cemetery board to take a close look at if they really need to be doing that,” Faber said.
Even though the district levies less than a third of what it’s allowed, it could levy about half a mill if it didn’t put anything into reserves. And with the fossil fuel industry struggling, that would be a welcome change, Faber said.
“Every time we raise mills, it impacts coal, oil and gas,” she said. “We’re just at a time now where it’s really important.”
Edmonds said the cemetery district invests money to earn income off of the interest. It’s following in the footsteps of the city and county.
“We modeled our approach after them,” Edmonds said. “They’re also forever entities, they don’t go paycheck to paycheck, fiscal year to fiscal year. They have to do things forever. Ours is no different.”
“Why is it that the cemetery district is the only entity that Del thinks shouldn’t have reserves?” Hastings asked.
Mount Nebo will be an expensive project. In 2018, it was estimated that to build it all at once would cost between $40 million and $54 million.
“We can do it with a plan like this, done over decades, or we can wait until we need the cemetery and hope the public will approve a bond issue, that we have to pay interest on, instead of earn interest on,” Hastings said.
Shelstad often uses Facebook as a platform to engage with people and get their feelings on various issues. He said he’s gotten mostly positive feedback on this latest idea, and that people have thanked him for “thinking outside the box, coming up with at least something.”
“I don’t look at it as causing trouble,” he added.
Shelstad said he was just trying to start a discussion on different ways to fund the college without more taxes. He knew it would raise some eyebrows.
“I thought my idea was probably about as radical as you could be,” he said. “I did that on purpose, because that’s how I think the conversation should start.”
He said he hoped to “massage” it down to a more workable solution.
“He has never called any of the board members, as far as I know. He’s never come into a meeting, never come into the office and asked for information,” Hastings said.
Edmonds said situations and debates like these just come with the territory.
“If you’re a public entity, you’re subject to scrutiny,” he said.
But he added that Shelstad’s idea feels like the cemetery is being singled out, and “that’s one of the things the trustees find so irritating.
“Why are they (the commissioners) picking on us? It’s more like a playground bully.”