From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 46 - 7/14/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

$209,040 Wasted on Lawyers

The County Commissioners should immediately drop any further legal proceedings or action against Exxon over the valuation of the natural gas produced at the companies LaBarge operations. Since 1996, the commissioners have given $209,040 to their Cheyenne lawyers pursing this case, and it's gotten the county nowhere.

In a ruling last week, the State Board of Equalization ruled that the valuation method the County agreed to for Exxon's LaBarge Operations way back in 1989 was fair and legal. Further, the BOE wrote in its ruling that if another valuation method was used, it's very possible the county would end up owing Exxon money for over-taxation.

Throughout this case, the commissioners have used inflammatory language and media shenanigans in and effort to embarrass Exxon into a settlement. Former commission Chairman Buzz Wassenberg framed the dispute as a case of "David [the County] vs. Goliath [Exxon]. This great sound bite was snapped up the industry-hating Casper Star-Tribune, which has given the case a lot of ink.

I remember when Buzz strolled into my Big Piney office in the fall of 1998 with charts and figures, and accused Exxon of venting millions of dollars worth of helium into the air, and therefore avoiding paying taxes on the gas. This accusation garnered a front page story in the Casper paper. It turned out, however, that Exxon's venting of the helium was fully legal and justified.

What Mr. Wassenberg didn't tell me that day he strolled in with the helium accusation is that the County had filed a complaint in federal court over the helium issue earlier that spring and the complaint had been thrown out by the federal judge. He knew it had no basis and as far as I'm concerned, was deceptive in his presentation to me. I called Kim Cannon, of Davis and Cannon, the law firm representing the county, and told him personally that I resented him trying to use my newspaper in this way.

In addition to Exxon, the commissioners have consistently demonized Governor Geringer, and the State Departments of Revenue and Audit which have sided with Exxon in this dispute. I'm no big fan of Jim Geringer, but I know there are some good people working in those departments, and the BOE's ruling has vindicated their position.

The inflammatory language continues to this day. Last week, current Commission Chairman Bill Cramer accused the Governor of stacking the BOE against the county. In doing so, Mr. Cramer questioned the integrity of the two BOE members who ruled that the current valuation method was valid. This is uncalled for.

Currently, the commissioners say they are consulting with their attorneys (i.e. more attorneys' fees) to see what options they have. Now that the valuation method has been ruled fair and equal, about the only thing they can do is accuse Exxon of purposely submitting false numbers to avoid paying taxes.

The commissioners seem to think that this whole dispute has made Sublette County look scrappy and determined by taking on both Exxon and the State. I disagree. I think it's made us look greedy. It's over now. They should just drop it.

It was encouraging to see young Walt Bousman at the Rural Health Care District Board meeting Monday night. Mr. Bousman is running unopposed for a seat on the Board, yet he took the time to sit in on the meeting and start becoming familiar with the issues facing the Board. Along these lines, conspicuous in their absence at the county commissioner meetings have been Mickey LaVoie and Tony Gosar, who are challenging Gordon Johnston for his seat on the board. By failing to attend the budget-intensive meetings, Messrs. LaVoie and Gosar have missed all the discussion over the various budget issues facing the county. Going into the campaign, they won't be able to get this background anywhere else.

Finally, before the commissioners commit to spending upwards of $5 million [the equivalent of five Ag Centers] for a courthouse expansion, I think they owe the taxpayers some justification. At a minimum, the commissioners need to hold hearings, present plans, and fully inform the public why this type of expenditure is needed. The commissioners can't expect supporters of other county projects, like the Ag Center or Hockey Rink roof, to endure this process, and not go through it themselves.

So, I'll turn the commissioners' questions to the Rec Board concerning the hockey rink back on the commissioners: Where is the plan? What's the final cost going to be? You plan public hearings, right?

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