When the Wyoming Legislature’s corporations committee asked the Wyoming Municipalities Association and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to figure out ways to become more frugal, the two groups suggested to stop publishing city and town governments’ meeting minutes and salary notices.
While the suggestion –which may become a committee-sponsored bill in the next session – met with immediate push back by the newspaper industry, and public advocacy people (including the Wyoming Press Association), it triggered a debate as to whether the move would actually save any significant money for the soon-to-be cash-strapped governments.
“They say it has to do with saving money – I can tell you where the commissioners can make cuts to their budgets that will save them a whole lot more than trying to remove a few hundred dollars publishing salaries,” said Douglas Budget Publisher Matt Adelman. “They pay nearly $19,054 in dues to the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Compare that to the pittance they pay to publish public notices.”
Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox, who is also vice president of WCCA, said his group is not pushing the idea but offered it in response to a request from the legislature’s corporations committee.
While the Douglas City Council hasn’t weighed in on the issue yet, City Administrator Jonathon Teichert said he personally supports the idea.
No one on either side is disputing that local governments will be forced to cut costs. But, as Adelman said, the costs of publishing public notices in newspapers is generally less than one-half of one percent of a government’s overall operating budgets, and in some cases far less.
So, the question becomes, just how much do local governments in Converse County pay to have the Douglas Budget or Glenrock Independent print the required public notices each year and how does that compare to their overall budgets?
In Converse County, the cost to publish all notices (not just the minutes and salaries which WAM and WCCA recommended eliminating last month) and other discretionary advertising amounted to this:
• City of Douglas - .08% of the budget.
• Town of Glenrock - .15% of its budget.
• Rolling Hills and Lost Springs - exempt from publishing notices because neither community has a newspaper located within their boundaries.
• Converse County - .06% of its budget.
Town of Glenrock
The Town of Glenrock’s budget for FY20-21 is $17,747,455. They pay annual dues to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities (WAM) to the tune of $3,312.
Their total printing and advertising costs, including but not limited to publishing public notices, is $26,250.
“We do not budget for specific vendors. This amount is not specific to the Douglas Budget or the Glenrock Independent,” Town of Glenrock Treasurer Kelly Lewis explained, meaning other vendors and newspapers also receive some of that money.
Adelman estimates Glenrock town government spends $10,000 to $15,000 annually on publishing the required public notices in the Glenrock Independent.
Converse County commissioners have a $53.5 million budget (FY20-21). Of that, they pay the Wyoming County Commissioners Association $19,054 a year in dues, according to county records.
Publishing in all its forms cost the county $32,224 last year (FY19-20) and, to date this fiscal year, they’ve spent $19,619, although they’ve budgeted $55,800 for FY20-21, according to Converse County Clerk Karen Rimmer.
“A total of $55,800 is budgeted for print/publishing across all (county) departments. The two largest budgets are for elections and other – $22,000 and $20,000, respectively. An educated guess would be that $35,000 is budgeted for FY2021 publishing based on what was spent last year,” Rimmer said.
Adelman said Converse County paid the Budget and Independent $22,789 last fiscal year, but that includes more than public notice costs and doesn’t account for spending on discretionary advertising by individual departments outside of the commissioners and county clerk/treasurer.
City of Douglas
The City of Douglas’ FY20-21 overall budget is $32,358,571 and their general fund spending is $8,281,762.
“(The) general fund operating budget for FY 21 . . . includes building and facility expenses, community and public service contracts, police department, public works, planning and administration,” Douglas City Clerk Chaz Schumacher said.
For two years running, the city has paid WAM $7,869 in dues. During FY19-20, the city budgeted $34,973 for publishing costs, she said.
Adelman noted the $35,000 budget includes far more than public notices and encompasses all forms of advertising and printing. He estimates the city spent approximately $25,000 with the Douglas Budget for public notices, but admits it’s a guess.
This year, the city has budgeted $25,000 for publishing and advertising costs in the Budget and other media, including radio and television stations, Adelman said.
When asked if Douglas would be onboard with ceasing the publication of public notices in the newspaper, Teichert said he could not speak for city council members, but he anticipates they would be.
“The city council has not taken a position on this topic and are unaware of any proposed legislation related to it,” he said. “The city will continue to look at all expenses and efficiencies during this time of economic uncertainty.”
Teichert said he wished to make it clear any statements made to the Budget are his own.
Adelman reiterated the issue, in his mind, is not truly about saving money.
“The City of Douglas is paying less than 1 percent – .08 percent of their budget – to publish public notices and all other advertising,” Adelman said. “Compare that to $7 million the city has budgeted for capital projects this year and $83,000 in economic development projects – which alone is four times what they’re paying in public notices. They’re giving $85,000 to The Enterprise and paying nearly $5 million in salaries to 68 full time, three part time and 13 seasonal city employees. I’m not opposed to any of these things. I get it. But to say it’s about saving money? It’s not. It’s about keeping the public from seeing where their tax dollars are being spent.”
LESS THAN 1%
The Wyoming Press Association has also been looking at the cost to publish public notices in newspapers for towns and counties in comparison to budgets, WPA Executive Director Darcie Hoffland said.
“Based on the data we have at the moment, the average cost is 0.25% of the annual budgets. We have to wonder if it’s really about evading responsibility and transparency. Civic duty should not be diminished under the guise of efficiency, and less openness and notice shouldn’t be options to consider in Wyoming. All persons in the state of Wyoming are entitled to the greatest possible information,” she said.
It’s also about getting the information out to the public in the broadest, safest way possible, especially in rural areas with poor or even non-existent internet coverage. And, for every newspaper subscription or sold, the paper is read 2.5 times.
The Douglas Budget reaches 3,950 subscribers and single copy sales, which equates to nearly 11,000 people reading each paper in print each week - not counting the hundreds or thousands reading the paper online, Adelman said.
“The press association says it’s about ‘transparency,’ but I don’t think anyone actually believes that,” he said.
CHECKS & BALANCES
According to Hoffland, removing newspapers from the public notice process would eliminate an important checks-and-balance system and increase the risk that vital civic matters will be hidden from the public.
“Notices rendered in ink in a newspaper cannot be altered once they are published – it is a permanent recording of real information that people can trust. However, websites can be hacked, altered or fabricated and create fake or false information,” Hoffland said.
Government officials argue that print newspapers are becoming antiquated; they can post public notices on Facebook and their own town or city websites to disseminate the information publicly, but Hoffland argues the issue at hand isn’t one about newspapers vs. the internet.
“All newspapers in Wyoming put notices published in their papers on their own websites. The Wyoming Press Association also operates a website repository for all notices in the state because we believe in more notice – not less.
“What this is really about is putting the fox in charge of the hen house. There are too many ways for information exclusively on government sites to be hidden. Requiring independent, third-party newspapers with a financial and civic interest in ensuring public notices run in accordance with the laws is the best way to ensure that government officials act in a manner which serves the public – and not their own interests,” she said.
Teichert argued there aren’t any reasons to keep publishing “legal ads” in newspapers.
“Newspapers have either gone digital or gone out of business. I can’t think of a newspaper, county or city in the state that does not already have an online presence where legal notices are published. For smaller cities and towns, the publishing costs of legal notices are prohibitive. As an example, the city made edits to its Land Development Code in 2015; that alone cost over $36,000 to publish. We haven’t been able to make any substantial edits since. Local governments are having to wait five years or more to change code because of publishing costs,” he said.
Adelman pointed out that notice should have cost the city $72,000 because of the huge length of it (52 newspaper pages ran on Aug. 19, 2015), but the Budget voluntarily offered to cut the cost by half. Minor changes to that code would not require printing the full code, thus the cost would not prohibit the city from making changes as frequently as it needs to.
During the corporations committee meeting in September, Sen. Charles Scott (R-SD30) moved to have a bill drafted for consideration which would remove the requirement to publish minutes and salaries from newspapers.
Teichert said the Douglas City Council would consider the issue in its 2021 Legislative Agenda if a bill comes forward.
“There will be upwards of 500 bills that will be introduced during the legislative session that we’ll be monitoring,” he said.
Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director David Fraser did not respond to calls or email messages prior to press time.