Wyoming’s bust hit schools and counties particularly hard. Losses came from fewer students filling chairs, fewer shoppers in local stores and fewer workers in oil and gas fields and coal mines.
But often overlooked during a budget crisis is unpaid taxes by the very companies hit hardest by a bust.
A recent report from a local landowners group outlines 12 Wyoming counties that are short $42 million in delinquent property taxes going back a dozen years.
“Our entire state is suffering following the most recent bust,” Powder River Basin Resource Council Chairwoman Joyce Evans said in a statement. “Several counties have had to cut back on personnel and services, and some have been dealing with school closures. We can’t afford to continue to allow money rightfully owed to counties to go uncollected.”
The report argues for a number of changes to fix the problem — from moving counties to be first in line during bankruptcy proceedings to collecting tax money monthly instead of annually. Many of the suggestions have been floated before by lawmakers, and in some cases found favor from industry, but they’ve fallen through in previous attempts.
“Maybe we could try it again next year,” said Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, a member of the Revenue Committee, who supported many of the suggestions that came up in the report. “The best time to do it is in a boom time, (though) I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call it a boom time right now.”
Wyoming, unlike its counties, collects severance taxes monthly, which has insulated it from large delinquent tax issues.
The state is owed less than $3 million from the recent bust, according to the report, which credits that figure to the Wyoming Department of Revenue, Mineral Tax Division.
Companies pays counties their production taxes one year after oil or coal is taken from the ground, and much can happen in that time, from changes in oil prices to bankruptcies.
Campbell County is currently short $26 million, mostly from a $19 million production tax bill for Alpha Natural Resources, which declared bankruptcy in 2015 and no longer operates mines in Wyoming. Another company, the now disbanded Storm Cat Energy, owes the county nearly $4 million, according to the report.
The coal bed methane firm dissolved after sustained low gas prices. The company owed state regulators some $10 million in bonding fees, but has reached a deal to orphan its non-producing wells and sell the viable ones to another firm.
Campbell County is fighting for the $19 million from Alpha, and has paid nearly $400,000 for a bankruptcy attorney to handle the case so far, said Carol Seeger, deputy county attorney. Alpha left Wyoming after it emerged from bankruptcy, selling its Powder River Basin mines to newly-formed Contura Energy. Contura recently sold the same mines to Blackjewel LLC.
Not all counties can afford to hire a bankruptcy attorney, according to the report.
Alpha has offered the county $7 million, but the money currently in an escrow account, untouchable by the county, Seeger said. Were Campbell County unwilling or unable to take the matter to court, it would have to make do with what Alpha offered, she added.
The company has contested the notion that they owe Campbell County nearly $20 million. They argue that they’ve paid all their production taxes from the day they filed for bankruptcy to the day they sold their Wyoming mines to Contura.
“Any unpaid taxes are for periods arising before the bankruptcy filing,” said Steve Hawkins, a spokesman for the firm. “(They) will be handled through the claims resolution process in the bankruptcy case and pursuant to orders entered by the bankruptcy court.”
Alpha and Campbell County have a court date on the dispute next month.
Lawmakers are aware of the delinquent tax issue. Before the recent bust, the Legislature convened a task force to try and address Wyoming’s inefficient collection system. But when the downturn hit, changes took a back seat, said Madden.
Coal companies, facing billion in debts to creditors and poised to lay off miners, pushed back on the monthly tax collections, arguing they couldn’t do it until conditions improved, Madden recalled.
“I can understand that,” he said.
Madden hadn’t heard of setting up a funding pool for counties to access bankruptcy lawyers and other experts, but he said it would address the challenge facing smaller counties.
The lawmaker supported a bill last year to place counties ahead of banks when money is due and companies face default. He said he continues to see counties’ lower priority when it comes to unpaid production debts as a problem.
It’s no surprise that Campbell, Sheridan and Natrona County face the largest unpaid-tax dilemma. Nearly all of Wyoming’s large coal mines are located in Campbell County. The region’s coal sector faced a steep and devastating downturn over the last few years due to low natural gas price competition and large company debt.
Campbell County, along with Sheridan County, was also hit in recent years by the coal-bed methane bust, another sudden downturn that left thousands of wells orphaned in the Powder River Basin and millions of dollars in tax debt from defunct firms.
Meanwhile, the oil downturn hit counties like Natrona particularly hard.
Natrona County is short nearly $5 million in production taxes, according to Treasurer Tom Doyle.
About 70 percent of that would go to education funding.
Other counties with unpaid taxes are Sweetwater, Johnson, Crook, Fremont, Converse, Sublette, Hot Springs, Laramie and Weston.
Doug Frank, mayor of the town of Glenrock in Converse County, said that the monthly production tax collection was a common sense solution. Frank is a member of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.
It’s easier to keep payments current over a short period of time, he said.
“At the end of the day, we would collect a higher number of those taxes,” he said. “I think, probably, it’s that simple.”