DOUGLAS – Converse County’s assessed valuation took a major hit this year, and while local officials are concerned, they remain hopeful things will start to turn around.
The valuation dropped about 26 percent from about $2.36 billion in 2020 to $1.74 billion in 2021.
While that seems extreme – and it is for a single year – the county had been riding an ever-increasing boom in value for the better part of two decades, despite a few blips here and there.
Why is the county valuation so important? While municipalities like the city rely primarily on sales taxes to fund its governmental services, the county is more reliant on property taxes than sales taxes – and the valuation of the county determines how much money those property taxes will generate.
It also is a bellwether of how the county is faring economically from year to year, although watching the trend rather than single-year movement tends to be a more accurate barometer of long-term economic viability and health.
In the case of Converse County, even the recent drop to $1.74 billion is a significant uptick from the days when the county was valued below the $500 million mark.
County officials also anticipated there would be some kind of drop this year because there was not a lot of energy activity for most of 2020.
Oil prices were down for part of the year, the rigs were gone, Converse County Assessor Dixie Huxtable said. The $1.74 billion is the lowest the county’s assessed valuation has been since 2018 when it was about $1.3 billion.
“We knew we would see a significant drop,” Converse County Commission Chairman Jim Willox said. “We’re disappointed but not surprised.”
Despite the drop, commissioners are optimistic that the county is still in good shape, especially as oil prices have gone from being in the negative last spring to about $72 a barrel recently.
“I think we’ll see some stabilization, but it is always tricky,” Willox said.
The proposed fiscal year 2021-22 budget reflects the county commissioners’ cautious optimism.
General fund revenues are estimated to hit about $46.4 million. The commissioners' plan may use a mix of some of the general fund and CARES Act monies to give the 114 county employees a raise, although most of the increase would go toward helping them pay for rising insurance premiums.
The county changed its insurance provider from Blue Cross Blue Shield to Cigna this spring to help soften the premium increases. Under the Blue Cross plan, employees and the county would have seen a 27-percent increase in premiums. With Cigna, the increase will be a more manageable 7-percent to 9-percent hike, County Commissioner Rick Grant said.
The county covers 83 percent of the insurance costs while employees chip in with the remaining 17 percent. The increase under the Cigna plan would cost employees an estimated $220 to $400 a month, depending on the plan the employee chooses, he added. The employees have seen their salary levels frozen for the past few years so this would be a way to recognize their hard work and ensure they do "not continue to slide back in their purchasing power,” Willox said.
The proposed county budget would also set aside $750,000 for the construction of the new Boys and Girls Club building in Glenrock. That money would go toward the $1.74 million that the Glenrock Town Council recently approved to do the work.
The county had previously contributed a similar amount for the Douglas Boys & Girls Club’s new building, while the City of Douglas paid for the bulk of it along with donations.
Another key ingredient in the proposed county budget are sales tax revenues, projected to be about $11.4 million. The county conservatively makes sales tax projections in the event there is a spike or drop during the year, Grant said.
It’s nowhere near record-highs, but “we’re pleased,” Willox said. “Right now, most of our revenues are generated around oil and gas. As we see more of that, we’ll see more sales taxes.”
He said the county will continue to look to diversify its economy.
“Our revenue picture looking forward is healthy, but is by no means robust like it has been in the last few years.,” Willox said.