By Bill Lucia, RouteFifty.com
As she went door-to-door during her campaign, Marian Orr, the mayor-elect, of Cheyenne, Wyoming, said the feedback she heard from city residents mostly had to do with government basics.
“I heard so much about potholes,” she told Route Fifty in a phone interview last week. “It was ‘fix the roads, fix the infrastructure, and put more police on the street.’”
Orr, 46, made local history on Nov. 8 when she was elected as the first female mayor of Cheyenne, which is Wyoming’s capital and the state’s most populous city, with about 63,000 residents.
She will take office during a lean fiscal era for the “Magic City of the Plains,” when attending to even core local government services promises to involve difficult budget choices.
The mayor-elect acknowledges as much, but remains undaunted.
“It’s just a matter of taking what we have and being smarter with those dollars,” she said.
The Fiscal Backdrop
Downturns in coal mining, and in the oil and natural gas sectors have left Wyoming’s government finances squeezed. This is problematic for cities there, which depend heavily on state tax revenues and face state-imposed restrictions on the local taxes they can collect.
The Wyoming Association of Municipalities noted in an October report that, compared to other localities across the U.S., cities and towns in the Cowboy State “have the least local fiscal authority and the highest reliance upon State resources.”
Take Cheyenne for example.
During fiscal year 2017, which began July 1, the city’s general fund is budgeted at about $49 million. This money covers basic government operations, like police, fire and public works.
About one-third of the fund’s revenues are a share of state sales and use tax collections. But that stream of revenues has been especially sluggish lately. In 2015, it produced about $17.8 million for the city. In the current budget cycle it’s expected to bring in just $16 million.
Cheyenne’s annual financial report for 2016 warns that decreases in state mineral revenues could result in additional funding losses for the city during Wyoming’s next legislative session.
Against this backdrop, a hiring freeze went into effect for Cheyenne’s city government on Nov. 1. And the current mayor, Rick Kaysen, discussed a report with the City Council last week that includes a raft of ideas for slashing costs.
Orr believes there are recommendations that have surfaced that can help address the near-term pressure on the city’s budget. She is also confident there are ways to save money going forward by finding new efficiencies and eliminating redundancies in Cheyenne’s government.
In terms of specific budget trade-offs, she mentioned the possibility of redirecting some money that now goes to parks and recreation toward costs like public works.
During the current fiscal year, parks and recreation accounted for about $6 million, or roughly 13 percent of Cheyenne’s general fund expenditures, and public works about $4 million, or around 8 percent.
Would the mayor-elect back any kind of tax increase? Orr’s of the mind that Wyoming’s low taxes are a big part of what draws people to the state. But she did voice support for an increase in the tax rate on lodging, a change that would require approval from state lawmakers.
“The number two economic driver in the state is tourism,” she noted. “Communities like ours could certainly benefit from increasing that bed tax.” Taxes on hotel and motel lodging tend to have the political advantage of affecting out-of-towners more than local voters.
Beyond the Budget
Looking beyond the city’s finances, tourism is an area where Cheyenne’s incoming mayor sees untapped opportunities. The city is known for its annual Frontier Days festival, a summertime Old West celebration that features the “world’s largest outdoor rodeo.”
But Orr highlighted other attractions, too.
“We have some outstanding and world class hiking and mountain biking right in our backyard,” she said.
There’s rich railroad history in the city as well.
Cheyenne’s formation in the late 1860s coincided with the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad. Orr said she recently learned about “trainiacs”— railroad enthusiasts who are willing to travel to check out historic railroad sites.
“We need to better attract those trainiacs to our capital city,” she said.
Orr also sees economic potential outside of tourism. The city is located at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 25 about 100 miles north of Denver. “We’ve got some fantastic business parks,” the mayor-elect added, “to recruit data centers and tech companies.”
Asked about her management style, Orr described it as “very collaborative” and said her 20-plus years of experience as a lobbyist have helped her learn how to reach compromises, while working with people that can sometimes have “really strong personalities.”
On the campaign trail, she caught flack during a debate from her opponent, Amy Surdam, for past lobbying efforts on behalf of Altria, the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris USA.
State records show that between 2014 and 2016 Orr was registered to lobby on behalf of organizations with a mix of interests.
Among them: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Motorola Solutions, Inc., the private equity firm Nueterra Capital, the National Electrical Contractors Association, the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association and the Wyoming Library Association.
Orr won election with about 55 percent of the vote, while Surdam captured about 43 percent, according to election results published by Laramie County, Wyoming.
According to the mayor-elect, her campaign operation consisted of her and her husband and a substantial push to get out her message using social media, especially Facebook and videos.
Her husband, Jimmy Orr, worked for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was a White House spokesman and directed digital strategy for President George W. Bush.
But this was Marian Orr’s first time running for public office. She explained that when she entered the race she was not aware that Cheyenne had never had a woman as mayor before, and that the topic of gender was not at the forefront of the contest.
“I ran really wanting to take my experience and further Cheyenne,” she said. “Being the first female is just kind of icing on the cake.”