TORRINGTON – A post on Facebook market pages led to an estimated crowd of 80 people at the Goshen County Courthouse June 4 to discuss the state of county-maintained roads with the Goshen County Commission.
The turnout forced the meeting to be relocated from the commission’s chambers to the Eighth Judicial District Courtroom. The commission heard over three hours of concerns, criticism, suggestions – and even a threat – before Goshen County attorney Eric Boyer suggested forming a stakeholder’s group to help find a solution to the problem.
Boyer’s suggestions came well over two hours into the conversation, and he pleaded for citizens to work together with the commission to help find an answer to an ongoing problem.
“This, obviously, is causing a lot of hackles to be raised,” he said. “Everyone here is obviously very knowledgeable about this. As a lot of people have mentioned, there’s no reason that the county can’t have ongoing working groups or some type of ongoing group to deal with the issues that we’ve been talking about.
“We don’t have to walk out of here angry today. We can all walk out of here and keep working on this thing.”
Commission Chairman Wally Wolski said putting together a stakeholder’s group is something the county will look into moving forward.
“Maybe we do need to have some kind of a stakeholder’s group,” he said. “We can try to figure out how we go from there.”
“This is not working”
The meeting opened with a general statement from Goshen County road and bridge superintendent Jerry Hort, who gave the crowd an overview of the way his department works.
Hort explained the methods his crew employs to tend to the roads, and told the crowd that an unusually wet spring, coupled with a pair of late season snow storms, is responsible for the soupy mess. He said the road conditions have deteriorated so much that a road grater can only cover four miles a day, and that his crew is doing its best to cover more than 1,000 miles of Goshen County roads.
“Road issues are everywhere, and the roads are all bad,” Hort said. “It’s all about the funding.
“When I started working here, we had 12 graders. Then it went to 10. Then it went to eight. Then it went to six. The miles didn’t change. Now, we’re back to seven machines. If you run everyday and everyone operates, you get eight to nine miles per day. It takes nine to 10 weeks to get around to everybody. Yesterday, I looked at the sheets, and we averaged four miles per machine. We can’t cover much more than that because you bounce right out of ruts and divots.”
Brandon York took the podium after Hort. York made the original social media post that went viral locally and inspired the large crowd. He said he decided to take action, and get the community at large involved, for a variety of reasons.
“I live a mile south and a mile west of the old Arnold Ranch, and I’ve been here all of my life,” York said. “One of the biggest concerns I’ve had is for the ranchers. Moving livestock from fields to the sale barn, to the veterinarians. A while ago, a rancher slid off with a load full of cattle and was stranded there for several hours. Farmers are having a hard time getting to their fields rather than working their fields.
“Parents – and I’m one of them – said getting their kid to school is difficult because of road conditions. We got a call from the bus barn saying the buses are too worried to come down the road. They’re afraid of getting stuck with a bus load of kids. That is unacceptable.”
York said he is also a fire fighter and an EMT for the Hawk Springs Volunteer Fire Department, and said the roads are perilous for expensive emergency vehicles.
“How are we supposed to help these folks?” he asked. “How are we supposed to help the community members when they’re in need of our equipment?
“This is not working. Plain and simple, it is not working. It’s excuse after excuse, and after the showing of folks in here, we’ve had enough of it. For starters, hold folks accountable. They need to know how to do their job. If they don’t do their job, it’s time to move on. We’ve got to have something different.”
Many of the speakers took to the podium to inform commissioners of problems that they have experienced on their roads.
David Platt, a rancher who lives in northern Goshen County near Prairie Center, said the roads in his area have deteriorated to the point that it’s nearly impossible to pass.
“Here about two months ago, my four-wheel-drive pickup, with a trailer and a tractor on the back, I buried it in the middle of a county road,” he said. “(GCC vice chairman) John Ellis was the one who pulled me out. How embarrassing.
“The county is not scared to take our tax money, but they sure don’t like to fix our roads.”
Patrick Zimmerer, who owns and operates Table Mountain Vineyards in Huntley, said road conditions have adversely affected his business, and he has had to tell potential customers to avoid the winery because of potential damage to their vehicles.
“It has been pretty terrible,” he said. “We had to bring a group of people into town when we were catering an event because they simply couldn’t travel down the roads. We’re also a part of a program called Harvest Hosts, and we have turned away 15 or 16 visitors, who have come to Goshen County to visit Fort Laramie and the other sites. We have had to actually turn them down. We’re losing business.”
Wolski and county clerk Cindy Kenyon presented the challenges from the county’s perspective. Wolski has long maintained that the funding isn’t there to do more on the roads, and he broke down his own property tax bill to show why.
According to his presentation, Wolski paid $5,023.15 in property taxes in 2018. Of that, only $95.94 went to the road and bridge department. Wolski presented the assembly with a pie chart that shows the way tax money is disbursed. State statutes dictate that 74.4 percent of tax dollars are allocated to education, which leaves the remainder to be split up between the county, special districts such as fire departments, Goshen County Weed and Pest, and conservation districts.
“This is where your dollars and my dollars, it’s all the same, go,” Wolski said. “Let’s call it a one dollar bill. Out of that one dollar in tax that you pay, 74.4 cents of every dollar goes to education. Education is important, but I want you to know the 74 cents out of every dollar goes for education.
“What is left after everything else goes into what is called the county general fund. That’s for everything in the county – law enforcement, public safety, everything. That amounts to 17.1 cents of every dollar that you pay going to county government.”
Wolski and Kenyon delved deeper into where tax dollars go at the local level. They provided another graph that breaks up how the 17 percent of tax dollars is divided. The Goshen County Sheriff’s Office, by state statute, receives over 30 percent of that money to operate the Goshen County Detention Center and its patrol divisions.
When it’s all spread out, only 1.9 cents out of every dollar is allocated to the road and bridge department.
“What you’re seeing is that public safety items are first and foremost,” Kenyon said. “This is not all of the funding to road and bridge. There is also a large amount of funding that comes from the state, from fuel taxes and things like that.”
County Road Funds, which are from the state, are made of dollars from various taxes and provide $1,729,467 in funding – but those dollars can’t be used on manpower or equipment, Kenyon said.
In all, the total budget for the department is $2,428,852, and only $262,086 can be used to hire operators and lease machinery.
That comes out to $2,119.41 per mile of county road. Wolski provided a comparison with Scottsbluff County, Neb., which has 970 miles of county roads, compared with Goshen County’s 1,146.
The Scottsbluff County road budget is nearly twice Goshen County’s, at $4,500,000. Scottsbluff employs 12 equipment operators and 12 graders, compared to seven for Goshen County.
When the numbers are broken down, Wolski, explained, Scottsbluff County is able to spend over double the amount Goshen County does on each mile of road - $4,639.17 per mile.
A few citizens pointed out that Platte County would be a more reasonable comparison. Hort agreed that Platte County does have nice roads, but said it’s likely because they have six operators and graders for 490 miles of county roads.
During the meeting, many citizens offered up solutions to fix the county roads. Some offered up practical solutions, while others took the opportunity to rail against the commission and Hort.
Bill Brandt, who has spoken at numerous GCC meetings about his concerns with the county roads, laid the blame squarely on Hort and the commission.
“I live on two roads that the county came in and destroyed last fall,” Brandt said. “They were going to come up and shape the roads and pack them with gravel, and this isn’t the place for me to lose my temper, but they do a sloppy job in everything they do. It’s a major safety issue for everyone in this county. There’s no road that is particularly bad, they’re all bad because, number one, lack of leadership.”
That sentiment was met with a round of applause from the attendees.
“If you have a county road boss that doesn’t know how to do anything, how can he train anyone to anything?” Brandt continued. “It is a personal vendetta with me because we have zero plowed snow on that road. We took our equipment out on that road, and we still have to pay our taxes.
“It’s total stupidity and asinine. I personally think the commissioners should be big enough to put on their big boy pants and fire Jerry Hort.”
The mention of removing Hort drew another round of applause from the crowd.
A resident of CR 47, who introduced himself as Dan Dvorak, but his last name is unclear on the audio recorded and doesn’t appear on the meeting sign-in sheet, was escorted out of the building by Sheriff Kory Fleenor.
“I can’t say anything about the roads,” he said. “They’re (expletive.) This guy over here (Hort) needs fired.”
His comments were applauded by the audience. He then turned his attention to the commission and let loose a tirade that earned several profanity warnings from Wolski, but was applauded by the crowd.
“You three right there are the problem in this county,” he said. “You’re not doing your (expletive) job. Wally Wolski, you’re worthless. You (Ellis) are worthless. Cody (Cox, commissioner) is brand new, but he turned into a yes-man. This guy (Hort) lives in Nebraska. He drives our vehicles, uses our gas, we’re paying his wages and he is not even from Wyoming. You three need replaced, and he needs fired.”
On his way out, he stopped in front of Wolski and pointed at him.
“This right here is from me to you,” Dan said. “Don’t run again. You’re worthless.”
The man left the meeting at that point, and Fleenor followed him out.
Amidst the criticism and accusations, some citizens proposed ideas to fix the problem. Zimmerer, after he spoke about the problems the county roads have caused for his winery, suggested creating some kind of reporting system to ensure the county knows about problem areas.
“I hope we can find ways to report these conditions a little easier,” Zimmerer said. “We could use some cheap, unconventional ways, like maybe tweeting or sending emails to the office. We could report real-time road conditions, with pictures. We are the boots on the ground and we can give you guys the heads up, too.”
Dennis Wambolt told the commission he had respect for Hort and the difficult job he faces.
“I respect Jerry Hort,” Wambolt said. “He’s got a hard job. We’ve gotten cross a few times, but we still talk. We have a serious problem, but I had an idea that we should have a half-cent sales tax. We did that on a lodging tax and we don’t get much out of that deal. Another suggestion I had, is maybe we could contract out some of these roads and we could work on our own roads. Jerry didn’t like it, but I did it one time.”
Other citizens suggested ballot initiatives, going to the state legislature and even re-allocating county funds from the library and fairgrounds for the purpose of maintaining roads, but the best way forward, the commission decided, was to discuss forming a stakeholder’s group tasked with finding a solution.
“What the county attorney brought up is a good idea,” Wolski said.
Wolski said the commission will have the formation of a working group on the agenda of its next meeting, which will be held June 18, 2019, at 9 a.m. in the Goshen County Courthouse.
“That’s going to give us time, that’s going to give Eric (Boyer) time, and if anyone has any suggestions, they can get them to us,” Wolski added. “We will discuss how to proceed forward whether it’s some sort of stakeholder’s group, or whether we need to have community meetings and things like that. We’re going to do that.”