Wyoming’s top elected officials disagree with Biden administration spending policies, but say they still want their constituents to get a fair share of the unprecedented federal grant money currently available. With billions of dollars up for grabs thanks to recent congressional acts, leaders convened an online and in-person summit aimed at helping state residents navigate the often byzantine, and labor-intensive process of securing and administering federal support.

“We’ve recognized for a long time how overwhelming the federal funding process can be,” Gov. Mark Gordon remarked via video conference at a federal funding summit at Sheridan College in mid-June. Gordon, along with Wyoming’s U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, all Republicans, hosted the event, which was the first of its kind for the state. 

“The purpose here is to educate, network and grow the capacities for acquiring grants and the capabilities to be able to administer those,” Gordon said. 

Both organizers and attendees said the need for such a gathering was illustrated when all of its 100-plus spots filled up with representatives from local governments, nonprofits and private enterprises. 

Critics have pointed out that Wyoming is unprepared to fully capitalize on such opportunities. 

While Barrasso and Lummis voted against the Inflation Reduction Act and and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the two senators “are committed to ensuring Wyoming communities and citizens have fair access to the programs their tax dollars are helping to fund,” according to a press release. 

Summit participants said regardless of politics, the state has plenty of needs the federal funding can be used for. 

“Politically, we may not agree with all the funding and policies coming out of Washington D.C.,” Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith said. “But us here in Wyoming, if we don’t take advantage of the money that’s coming out of there and use it to make our state better, it’ll go to Montana or Idaho or California or New York.”

A sidewalk in downtown Lander gets an upgrade on its “complete street” design in order to accommodate all users. (Wyoming Pathways/Courtesy)

Gaining an advantage 

Highsmith sees the summit as a step toward helping local governments like his become more competent and competitive in the grant process, he said. It was especially helpful to be in the same room with other municipalities that face similar problems, he added. 

With a population of approximately 471, Shoshoni is among the three-quarters of Wyoming municipalities with populations of fewer than 2,500. And like other small, rural communities, maintaining infrastructure is a major challenge for Shoshoni, Highsmith said. 

“If we’re gonna build new sewer and water lines, we could not tax our citizens enough money really to be able to afford to do much of the work that needs to be done to provide those services,” Highsmith explained. Because state law restricts how counties and towns can tax themselves, “we need to reach out for grants and financial assistance,” Highsmith said. 

Shoshoni doesn’t have dedicated staff to chase after funding, Highsmith said, but its police chief, who has a master’s in public administration, has successfully utilized his grant-writing skills. The town has four grant-enabled projects in the works including three involving its water system. 

With knowledge he gained at the summit, Highsmith said he’s hoping his town can secure federal funding to build much-needed housing for school and city employees. 

Bandwidth, risk and reward

Some of Wyoming’s larger municipalities, like Rawlins, have created full-time grant-writing positions in recent years. Still, Justin Schilling,  member services manager for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, is concerned about bandwidth. His organization helped put on the summit in Sheridan. 

For Wyoming’s smallest municipalities, “it’s a clerk/treasurer sitting in city hall or town hall, and maybe a water operator or public works person,” and that’s it, Schilling said. 

“They just don’t have people or extra staff with time or expertise to pursue [federal grants], and it’s incredibly daunting for them to even consider,” he said. 

It can be overwhelming even for those municipalities with a dedicated grant writer. Many, Schilling said, have grown accustomed to Wyoming’s Mineral Royalty Grant program, which awards money to alleviate emergency situations that pose threats to public health, safety or welfare. The program can also distribute dollars to local governments to help them provide an essential public service or to comply with federal or state mandates. Compared to federal grants, the program offers an easier application process and has fewer reporting requirements. 

But, Schilling said, getting savvier at the federal grant game is likely to become increasingly important as local governments may not always be able to rely on the state and its unstable revenue streams. 

Rawlins, pictured in April 2021. (Jimmy Emerson/FlickrCC)

What’s next 

Part of the inspiration for the summit, Schilling said, was to address a common anxiety that the risk of federal funding — such as being audited or having to send money back — outweighs the reward of a significant grant. 

“The difficulty with any of it is that a lot of times the people that need it the most are the ones that won’t show,” Schilling said of attendance at the summit. 

Moving forward, Schilling said he expects to see more training opportunities — the state is currently seeking bids for contract grant writing support services. Those are one-time dollars, however, appropriated by the Legislature. In the ideal long run, Schilling said, the state would consider creating a state grant office. 

“I could think of very few executive branch offices that they could create that would see a higher return on investment than one that would help cities, towns, counties, special districts, you know, sub-entities within the state, pursue nationally available grant money,” Schilling said. 

At least one lawmaker is interested in “building capacity by teaching.” 

“I’m sort of intrigued by this idea of having a go-to source,” Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) said. Whether it’s a division in the governor’s office or a state agency, Sherwood said it would make sense to build capacity by coaching people through the grant process, “so once you’ve gone through successfully, written the grant application, you’ve got it, you’ve executed the project and closed it out, you’ve been part of the learning experience.” 

As director of Laramie Main Street, Sherwood is familiar with wearing a lot of hats. 

“What I see in terms of lack of capacity, whether it’s in a smaller municipality or in a nonprofit, is ‘I’m the only fulltime person. So I’m cleaning the toilet and writing the grants and planning the events and figuring out fundraising and strategic planning,’” Sherwood said. 

Elected officials need to be mindful of that, Sherwood said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, X, Y, and Z are available to you through the [American Rescue Plan Act] or the Infrastructure Act,’” she said. “But if you don’t have local capacity, those opportunities are flying you by.” 

The governor’s office considered the event “highly successful” and called on participants to urge legislators to support future funding for similar endeavors. A combination of sources funded the summit, including Legislature-appropriated money to be used for grants.  

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. We wonder why we have inflation eating us up. Roads bridges streets water sewer all falling apart. Nothing spent on those basic needs. None of the money will benefit people

  2. This article highlights so well the hypocrisy of the Republican Party and our Republican elected officials, from the national level down to the local level. They bemoan “socialism” and what they term out of control spending. Yet, when the “free” federal money is there for the taking, they don’t hesitate to scramble for every penny they can get. To their credit, they recognize that it can actually benefit Wyoming citizens in spite of their political stance and Wyoming will be the better for it.

  3. Next training class will be on how to complain about the federal government. It’ll be paid for by fed dollars

  4. A state too expensive into itself, or by virtue of its dependencies, ultimately falls into decay. Simon Bolivar 1783-1830
    Control is found in dependency. The ringing of our Freedoms Bell is muffled by those
    that are voted/appointed to pull on the bell’s rope.