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Wyoming News Briefs: December 2, 2019

Sales, use tax collections strong in 2019

CASPER (WNE) — Wyoming’s sales and use tax collection stayed strong in fiscal year 2019, with the state amassing over $1 billion, a nearly 12 percent leap from the previous year, according to an annual tax revenue report compiled by the state’s Economic Analysis Division.

But the 2019 fiscal year didn’t set any tax records.

“Even with the two consecutive fiscal years of increases, the amount of total sales and use taxes for fiscal year 2019 was about 5 percent lower than that of fiscal year 2015, before the economic downturn in the state,” stated Wenlin Liu, chief economist at the Economic Analysis Division.

Oil exploration and an uptick in active drilling rigs in eastern Wyoming catalyzed some of the growth, according to the report. Production shot up 18 percent this year. The mining industry writ-large grew by nearly 20 percent in fiscal year 2019.

Sales and use tax growth was most pronounced in Converse County. The county collected 53 percent more in taxes than last year. Over 90 percent of Wyoming’s counties also experienced some growth.

“The strong expansions in these counties were mainly driven by increased oil drilling and utility structure construction activities,” Liu wrote in the report.

In contrast, tax collection slumped in Sublette County by a concerning 17 percent.

Amid greater competition from outside the state’s borders, natural gas production in the state fell by 11 percent compared with last year.


Defunct dealership sues Nissan

LARAMIE (WNE) — A defunct Laramie car dealership, Snowy Range Dodge, has filed a lawsuit against Nissan, which has claimed the Laramie dealership has about $6.8 million in unpaid debt.

In October, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against Snowy Range Dodge, barring owner Josh Griffin from “encumbering, transferring, spending, removing, or otherwise disposing of, damaging, altering, or impairing, account funds, whether in the form of a check, withdrawal, transfer or otherwise, without the written consent of (Nissan) or until further order of this court.”

However, JAG Auto now claims Nissan owes the Laramie dealership more money than JAG Auto owes.

The dealership’s owner, JAG Auto, is alleged to have sold Nissan vehicles without paying the car manufacturer for the product.

Griffin’s business is now represented by Laramie attorney Phil Nicholas, who’s now filed a counter-lawsuit against Nissan in Albany County’s district court.

JAG Auto now seeks to deposit remaining account funds with Albany County’s Clerk of District Court until the case is resolved.

Griffin contends that his default on loans under his “floor plan financing” agreement, which allowed JAG Auto to acquire an inventory of new and used vehicles without pre-paying for them, came only because of Nissan’s “breach of contract and breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing.”

With Nissan’s permission, Griffin’s substantially increased Snowy Range Dodge’s used car inventory in Laramie about a year ago. However, Nicholas said that Nissan then quickly demanded that JAG Auto liquidate its recently purchased vehicles at auction at below-wholesale prices.


Gillette woman pleads no contest to vehicular homicide

GILLETTE (WNE) — A Gillette woman pleaded no contest to one count of aggravated vehicular homicide Wednesday morning.

Kaycee Smelser, 34, had been charged in the death of 26-year-old Jessica Cano De Najera on Jan. 25, 2018. In December 2018, Smelser pleaded not guilty to the charge. A jury trial was scheduled to begin Monday.

She pleaded no contest in a change of plea hearing in District Judge John R. Perry’s courtroom Nov. 27.

Smelser was driving south on Highway 59 near Wright at about 95 mph in a 70 mph zone on an icy morning with blowing snow when she lost control of her Dodge Ram pickup and crossed the center line, based on data the Wyoming Highway Patrol recovered from her vehicle.

Cano De Najera, was heading north in her Dodge Journey at about 68 mph, according to data from her vehicle. She braked suddenly before the crash, likely in an attempt to avoid Smelser.

The two vehicles collided in Cano De Najera’s lane.

Cano De Najera’s car was pushed backward and spun clockwise, while Smelser’s pickup went off the east side of the road and spun counter-clockwise. Her pickup stopped at the right of way fence and caught fire.

Passing drivers helped put out the fire and worked with the Campbell County Fire Department to get Smelser out of the burning pickup, Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Will Zilka said at the time of the crash.

Cano De Najera was taken to the hospital, where she died from her injuries.


U.S. Highway 14A through Bighorns closed for season

SHERIDAN (WNE) — Due to strong winds, poor visibility and a projected five to eight inches of snowfall and blizzard-like conditions in the forecast, the Wyoming Department of Transportation implemented its season closure of U.S. Highway 14A in the Bighorn Mountains at 2 p.m. Nov. 27.

WYDOT seasonally closes the 22-mile stretch of scenic mountain road in the Bighorn Mountains of north-central Wyoming at the end of the fall hunting season.

According to WYDOT highway maintenance supervisor Dustin Hockett of Sheridan, heavy snows and relatively light traffic during the winter months makes snow removal of the mountain portion of the highway impractical.

“With the impending snowstorm coming this weekend, and high winds causing drifting near Observation Point, it has become impractical to maintain the roadway,” Hockett said.

WYDOT crews from both Lovell and Burgess Junction made one final sweep of the U.S.14A route to ensure all motorists are off the mountain and closed the gates for the season. Those seasonal road closure gates are located at Burgess Junction — just east of milepost 98.1 — and on the Lovell side of the mountain near milepost 76.04.

WYDOT closes U.S.14A seasonally as a safety precaution rather than as a reaction to storms. During this seasonal closure, motorists can use US 14 via Granite Pass and Greybull to travel to and from Sheridan or Lovell.

WYDOT will open US 14A on or before Memorial Day weekend in May 2020.

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