County commissioners tackle tough issues at Chamber BOB

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Town and county contenders for office were grilled for breakfast at special programs of the Chamber of Commerce the past two mornings. The Chamber’s back-to-back Business Over Breakfast gatherings on Thursday and Friday featured a one-hour forum for all candidates running in the local primary for town council and board of county commissioners.

County matters took center stage Friday with seven commissioner hopefuls facing off on business issues of the day concerning the Chamber. The Chamber’s Government Community Affairs Committee drafted questions that ranged from sustainable growth, to housing, to taxes.

Incumbent Mark Newcomb-D leads a field that includes Richard Aurelio-D, Mark Barron-R, Andrew P. Byron-R, Mary M. Martin-R, Seadar Rose Davis-D and Luther Propst-D.

Following is short paraphrased synopses on how each candidate responded to the questions.

 

Board of County Commissioners

Q: Do you support the lodging tax? If so, how is it working and how can it be better? If not, how do you replace the $3M or so of funds it provides to the town and county coffers?

NOTE: Currently revenues from the 2% lodging tax are split 60-40, with 60% going toward promotion/marketing and 40% toward mitigating impacts of tourism. Previously, and for all other counties in the state, the split is 90-10 and is bound by state statute.

Richard Aurelio

I’m for the lodging tax. In fact, I would like to see it higher. For those of you who travel, you should know our lodging tax is incredibly low. I don’t believe we are getting enough to mitigate the cost of three million people passing through here every year.

Mark Barron

I support the lodging tax and the split the way it is. Teton County is the only county that gets this formula. Money doesn’t grown on trees. If visitors don’t pay for these amenities we will. Seed money for local start-up events that are now popular and iconic events today is made possible through lodging tax money. I would like to see that 60% spent on community events.

Andrew P. Byron

I support the lodging tax. The amount of money that goes into our general fund I see in Fire EMS, Ski Club, START. It supports things we all get to enjoy. I also think the 60% is spent wisely during the calendar year; TTB does a good job.

Seadar Rose Davis

I do support the lodging tax. It helps promote a year-round economy. I would like to see a more equitable split, and more management over these monies in Teton County.

Mary Martin

I do support the lodging tax. I, personally, watched it help build the Fall Arts Festival. I would like to see more of the funds go toward community events. It’s an important revenue source for Parks and Rec. TTB goal of making sure we are a world-class resort should be resounding to all of us. Promoting and preserving the goose that laid the golden egg to our economy. We really can’t control a lot of how this money is divided. The state controls the parameters but TTB’s history is strong and it makes sense to let visitors pay.

Mark Newcomb

I support the lodging tax. Running through the numbers—it contributes a half-million for START, $355,000 for Parks and Rec, $150,000 for Fire/EMS, $150,000 toward the museum. That’s a good chunk right there.

Could we flip it [formula]? No. Let’s work with what we have. Make sure TTB  is not promoting this as a place to live—the new hottest place to get your Shooting Star home—but a place to visit.

Luther Propst

I support the lodging tax. I fear we think eliminating it will solve our traffic problems. The feds and state also spend on tourism to promote Jackson Hole. Legislature should give us more flexibility on how we spend it. I would like to see that split be able to flex along with economic conditions through the years. TTB and local government do a good job of allocating those funds to important priorities.

 

Q: With the ITP and new data becoming available in 2019, what are your general thoughts on transportation in and around the valley?

Richard Aurelio

As an engineer I tend to look at these things as flow. I would improve flow and eliminate the bottlenecks.

Also, START needs to be a major contributor to solving affordable housing and traffic problems. We need to expand routes to outlying communities, which in turn would open up more residential property opportunities there. Add more buses and routes to those outlying comminutes and have it paid for by local businesses.

Mark Barron

The board of commissioners needs to prioritize roads, including and especially Wyoming 22 and 390. We should look into putting a roundabout at 22 and 390, and have Highway 22 four lanes from Broadway to there. Together, with the commissioners working with WYDOT, we can solve these issues. Tribal Trail should have been built years ago.

Andrew P. Byron

I’ve been a religious START rider for over a decade. Last SPET election transportation got left behind. We all need to support it together. There are people all over the valley with no bus stop close to their house. Ride-sharing, pathways, and cooperation with WYDOT are all important. Tribal Trails I support. It was approved years ago. Let’s move forward with no more money wasted on planning it. Let’s do it.

Seadar Rose Davis

As a START board member I agree START is an important piece. START is currently working on adding two more buses to commuter routes this fall. Adding more roads and expanding roads, well, we need to go through a complete public charter process with that. I support the process currently going forward with Tribal Trails—making sure our community has a voice.

Mary M. Martin

First off, there isn’t a silver bullet. What we are facing are the unintended consequences of kicking the can down the road. WYDOT is not our enemy. They are very concerned about safety in Jackson Hole. We have only three ways in. We need redundancy for community safety. We may need to widen roads but we need to have a plan. We are the ones contributing to the problem. We are part of the solution. I saw one data point saying we make four vehicle trips per day on average. Can we reduce these trips? How many of us ride the bus?

Mark Newcomb

I support START. But again, resources are limited. I think START could be especially useful to knock off peak periods where congestion is the worst.

As a commissioner you need to know what you can and can’t do. WYDOT controls Highway 22. Yes, we better be working with them. Tribal Trails at a 45-55 mph I won’t vote for, but we need it.

Luther Propst

We need to increase the number of daily runs of commuter buses. Build a full-service transit centers with daycare, parking, lockers, adequate restrooms. We need to improve the way traffic flows; roundabouts are key. I would look at dedicated bus lanes if we need to, especially from Stilson into town. Widening and new roads is a last resort.

 

Q: What is the best use of the Stilson Lot?

NOTE: The property currently serves as an ‘underutilized’ park-and-ride for Teton Village. Future plans have included athletic fields (soccer, softball, skatepark, etc) but a recent land swap by the school district means another school headed for Teton Village could be relocated somewhere else on the West Bank including Stilson.

Richard Aurelio

I see it as a natural transportation hub. The problem with school there will pressure for a north bridge. Trap kids at the end of w one way road. We should have a very transparent process for this particular parcel. Make sure everyone gets a chance of participating. We are suffering with that on several projects right now.

Mark Barron

I would convene a Board of County Commissioner workshop and look at changing the master plan to include a school. The school swap from Teton Village is a good idea. A school at Stilson is a good idea.

The Kemmerer family made it possible for seven acres at Stilson for athletic fields. Right now it is little more than an underutilized park and ride. I mean, wouldn’t it be sweet if the restroom was at least taken care of by Parks and Rec?

Andrew P. Byron

Stilson is a sensitive area. I would like to see us continue to move forward with an updated master plan. We’ve been talking about soccer fields for over a decade back when I was on Parks and Rec board. Certainly a school out there makes sense. The land swap was a good thing. No one has mentioned this but it’s also a great spot for a fire station. It has good ins and outs. Overall, this is a phenomenal opportunity for the Board of County Commissioners to use the area.

Seadar Rose Davis

It is a critical piece of land. The transit hub it has already become [and could further be] is great example of how business and transit can come together. Athletic fields may be the best use out there. We need to decide the best use moving forward. I do think it is time to move forward there.

Mary M. Martin

Yes to everything! We need public restrooms there for sure. Stilson is an excellent opportunity for us as a community to build a working relationship with the Village. They have a wonderful group of leaders out there. School board is a wonderful group of people to work with. It is time to seize the moment.

Mark Newcomb

Again, it is important to understand what you can and can’t do. School opportunity is intriguing with three acres granted. We can’t tell Teton County School District what to do but if they think it is in their best interest I would consider it. There should be fields there on county land, and the park and ride for the Mountain Resort. If it turns out both school and fields are possible, I would be in agreement with that. The Master Plan for Stilson currently calls for fields.

Luther Propst

Stilson could be a game-changer for our transportation system. It’s a great place for a comprehensive transit center I mentioned before. Building a school there instead of at the [Village] would be better. We should workshop it and expedite a decision on it.

 

Q: What if we hit another economic downturn? Would you seek to cut back or raise taxes?

Richard Aurelio

That’s a tough one. I ran a company on an island much like this community is. We grew, even steadily. How do you protect the workforce? That’s the most important asset you have. We would trim our budgets and reprioritize where we were investing. But it all started with protecting the employees we depended on.

Raising taxes might work but the problem is when we are in a downturn, everyone is in a downturn and money is tight. Getting a SPET approved, for example, would be very difficult.

Mark Barron

As mayor I went through a five-year economic downturn. We convened as a council and decided to reduce the budget by 22%. We managed to eliminate staff by not filling positions, not laying off anybody.

Our job as government is to support you as citizens. It is to recognize everyone is hurting. Government should reduce its services during a downturn. From 2008-2012, that worked very well.

Andrew P. Byron

I was on Parks and Rec board in 2009-10 and we continually got hit with requests for new park features. We had to vote no a lot. It is important to live within our means if we are faced with a downturn. I would not support a 7% tax. We don’t need to grow with an extra penny. I would stay with and make do with what we have.

Seador Rose Davis

It’s about balance. I don’t want to say what should be cut, like what services. We will still need those. Employees are important. I would support giving voters the opportunity to determine whether they support 7%.

Mary M. Martin

I am fiscally conservative and we should try to work within our budget. I’ve had to deal with budget cuts and downsizing throughout my career. Employees and long time board members are most important. We would have to set priorities. SPET is a wonderful tax to consider for projects. If in a budget crisis I would support putting things to SPET.

Mark Newcomb

I would not cut county staff salaries. We’ve got to maintain the excellent staff we have now. Salaries are about 60-65% of the whole budget. We would probably have to set aside some capital projects. If we really feel like we need those we could try to fund them with SPET. I don’t support a 2nd penny on that but maybe if we really need it. Maybe for wildlife crossings.

Luther Propst

Balance is the key. Economy in this country is cyclical. It’s not if but when. Maybe we could have a rainy day fund like the state does. And I would take advantage of SPET for capital projects when sun is shining.

 

Q: Is housing 65% of our workforce locally still a worthwhile goal?

Richard Aurelio

I grew up in the projects on the lower east side of Manhattan. I understand the importance of affordable housing. I’ve been there. I still can’t live in New York City. There is the reality that places this beautiful are unaffordable to some people. The 65% will be increasingly difficult to achieve but it’s a good goal. But remember: he more we add, the more impact on environment. We should also change the rules to get the people we need in affordable housing.

Mark Barron

65% is a good goal. These current mitigation rates are not achievable. We are not going to get anything out of that. We should all be mindful that it has been the business community in particular, that has done a lot to provide the affordable housing we have now. We haven’t had a new neighborhood in quite some time.

We shove around divisive terms like ‘growth’ and  ‘no growth.’ It’s not productive and it’s not Jackson Hole. We can do better.

Andrew P. Byron

The 65% is critical to solving some transportation issues. We’ve got to work as a community to get there, and not just a county government. I’d like to see more work being done with the private sector. The cooperation between the Housing Authority and Housing Trust is a good example of partnership. We also need to look at our regional communities to help support housing and use commuter lines.

The housing mitigation rate is too high. It will result in no growth and it is crushing for small businesses.

Seadar Rose Davis

I’d like to see the 65 be even higher. As a goal it is a reasonable mark. If there’s no goal, what are we working towards?

I support higher mitigation rates. What we were doing wasn’t working. Mitigation is a tool to be used with other tools. It is going to take a lot of tools but mitigation is an important one. We have a serious lack of rentals, for one. That is what we need the most right now.

Mary M. Martin

We do need to have goal of more employees living in Teton County. Because the reality is not everyone who wants to live here can. But we need to have enough working here to be a community. Hockey coaches, plumbers, teachers—people like this are the core of our community.

Building enough housing will take private developers and philanthropists. I’m also concerned with a lack of rentals. Using deed-restriction could be a potential solution.

Mark Newcomb

It’s a pretty fair number but what would it cost to get to 65%? Can we really get there? The value of every acre in this county is so high right now. I think we need to start thinking about letting go of the 65 as a hard and fast rule. It’s a messy process.

It does require the higher mitigation on new commercial development, as well as the cooperation of the Housing Department, Housing Trust, and Habitat.

Luther Propst

The 65% is a good goal. It’s an arbitrary number but goals work that way. We are only going to make meaningful progress on our housing crisis with partnerships. Cooperation from nonprofits like the Housing Trust and Habitat, along with with private developers and bankers. The county, as well, has a special obligation to house its 350-400 employees.

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