It’s not so quiet in Mills anymore.
The industrialized Casper suburb, home to just 2,500 people 20 years ago, now boasts a population of more than 4,000. A 17% population spike since the last census in 2010 helped it rank as the second fastest-growing community in the state after Bar Nunn, another Casper suburb.
Heavy vehicles rumble beside a sleepy neighborhood in the city’s west end, where new developments have replaced fields. A gravel lot near the North Platte River sits graded and waiting, the future site of what town planner and Wyoming State Rep. Kevin O’Hearn (R-Mills) has identified as the city’s “new Main Street.”
Mills relies on federal funds to support projects like the riverfront revitalization, according to Mayor Seth Coleman. And with the growth it experienced, it’s set to receive even more.
Population plays a major role in how much state and federal funding communities receive. A swelling population means additional support.
“[Since January 2020], we have been awarded about four and a half million dollars in grants, both state and federal,” Coleman said. “And each one of those different grants deals with population.”
Mills has had to contend with some of these challenges firsthand. Mills first responders often assist police and fire operations in Casper through a mutual aid agreement, Coleman said. While the relationship goes both ways, Coleman said local agencies saw an increased strain as the population of the community began to increase and their state and federal funding levels remained static.
Similar scenarios may soon play out in places like Worland.
“It will be a real struggle to continue to do what we’ve been doing with this kind of reduced funding,” Worland mayor Jim Gill said. “It just won’t pencil out, I can tell you that.”
The new census numbers and their implications come amid an ongoing funding battle between municipal officials and the Wyoming Legislature, which has pushed for communities to shoulder a greater burden of funding their services.
At present, the $105 million direct distribution comes out of the state’s savings account, commonly known as the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account or LSRA, Rieman said. With persistent declines in revenue from fossil fuels, state lawmakers have pursued service cuts and relied heavily on the LSRA to help balance its budget, a trend fiscal analysts have warned is unsustainable in the long-term.
Community leaders could consider tax increases to backfill those losses, Cody Mayor Matt Hall said. However, voters in many communities have soundly defeated tax increases. “I know ours failed miserably,” he said.
Towns and counties could see some short-term solutions to help offset some of the strain from new arrivals. Funds from the federal American Rescue Plan as well as a new infrastructure package could present some of the clearest opportunities for small rural communities. Gov. Gordon has already weighed these options. Gordon also suggested there could be auxiliary programs from federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could offset declines seen in fossil fuel-reliant economies, like Sublette County. Some of those discussions, he said, are already underway.
“Mineral royalty grants and emergency grants won’t be funded at as high a level, which means that we will not have quite the same ability at the state level to meet some of those challenges,” Gordon said. “We have engaged with USDA and Rural Development to see if there are additional resources there that we can bring to bear on some of these issues.”
There is also a way for communities to challenge their census counts, according to Liu. Certain local governments could participate in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Special Census in a couple years at their own expense if they believe their population grew after the end of 2020 Census, he wrote in an email.
Without solutions, population declines in rural communities may continue, Worland’s Glanz said.
“[The loss of funding] could cause a ripple effect to the whole community,” Glanz said. “We could end up losing population if we can’t provide the services that people are wanting to see in the long-term.”
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