Additional penny of sales tax will be on November ballot

JACKSON, Wyo. — Facing a gloomy financial picture, town and county leaders agreed to move forward with an added penny of sales tax, a decision voters will be asked to make this November at the general election.

It was town electeds who dominated the majority of the conversation Monday concerning an added penny of general revenue sales tax. It is the town that finds itself in more dire straits, financially, than the county, but both entities face challenges with increasing demands for services and dwindling sales tax revenue due to COVID.

In addition to the four cents on the dollar sales tax imposed by the state, which is split 69/31, county/town, Teton County also imposes a penny of SPET and a penny of general revenue sales tax, totaling a 6% sales tax rate in Teton County.

No other county in Wyoming imposes more than 6% sales tax. In addition to Teton, nine other counties impose 6%, 10 impose 5%, two impose 4%, and one imposes a 5.25% sales tax.

The town of Jackson has struggled mightily with simply keeping pace with the growing demand for core services.

“This tax is viewed as a necessary tool because we cannot keep pace with current services. And there’s no way we can continue to fund 45% of some of these joint departments with our current revenue sources. This is a way to save our butts,” said councilman Jim Stanford. “If you want to call 911 and have a response and have a response 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I would hope you would vote for this tax.”

Fellow councilman Arne Jorgensen agrees.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion, going back to our retreat, town identified several areas where community asked for additional services – housing, transportation and conservation. Now there is a recovery component added to that with COVID,” Jorgensen said. “This is a tool that allows us to provide services and recover from where we are now.”

Worry over the regressive nature of a sales tax has bothered some, as well as the fact that more locals would be paying than visitors for the foreseeable future with visitation hampered by the pandemic.

“We won’t be much higher than most other folks,” said Mayor Pete Muldoon. “People want better town service. Well, it would be a tough time to not have Fire/EMS service.”

Muldoon added that taxes in Teton Village are higher than anywhere else around and it does not seem to have hurt retail sales there. He also challenged the regressive nature of the tax, calling it more of a progressive tax in Teton County. Finally, Muldoon said the extra penny would go a long way toward implementing visions the 2012 Comp Plan calls for that the town has been unable to do thus far.

Jonathan Schechter called it a “tough ask” given the current economic conditions in the valley.

Commissioner Luther Propst took consolation in the fact that no one was making a decision to raise taxes. That would be up to the voters.

“We have a limited set of tools, and I don’t want to see perfection be the enemy of progress on this point,” Propst said. “This could help support social services, and county employees certainly need a raise. We just have a significant backlog in climate initiatives, workforce housing, START…”

Commissioner Greg Epstein worried mainly about imaging, reminding his colleagues that other previous tax increases have been shot down by voters.

“Rolling this proposal out to the public, hopefully we learned [from the past] on what the pitfalls were on why [an additional] penny didn’t pass. Any thought on from the town council on how you foresee the rollout of the messaging to get this passed?” Epstein wondered. “And with visitation down, how are we going to have the conversation about this not being a regressive tax? After 2021, would the town council be willing to think about bringing lodging tax up two pennies?”

Only commissioner Mark Barron voiced opposition to raising sales tax, calling it a poor time to be burdening citizens, financially.

“It all sounds great when we are talking housing, transportation, conservation. The reality is we used to be able to say 50% of sales tax was paid by visitors. That is no longer the case. Not this year, and maybe for a couple of years,” Barron said. “Town spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on administration and planning positions. They purchased new real estate across the street for an expansion of town hall, I’m not sure, for $4.6 million. These are real dollars and cents.

“We make these decisions as elected officials, and it’s easy to make these decisions when the money’s rolling in. This community is hurting. Astronomical unemployment. Small businesses are doing everything they can to [survive]. This is a very, very tough ask for the people of Teton County and the Town of Jackson. Bear in mind when we are asking people in this community to step up yet again and pay more tax it might not work out well.”

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