JACKSON HOLE, WYO — Early discussions on special purpose excise tax (SPET) initiatives that could appear on the November election ballot identified 14 town/county projects totaling more than $91 million and also included plenty of attention on the fairgrounds and the idea it could moving out of town in favor of housing.
The original intent was for town and county electeds to come up with one or two items as a ‘stop gap’ or ‘carry-over’ so that the current penny tax does not expire. At a joint board retreat in March, staff was told by the council and commission that there was interest in proposing initiatives that would extend the current 1% SPET for a period of two years, and that they were interested in town and county internal projects only.
When the boards met Monday, the ‘stop-gap’ approach to SPET looked more free-for-all Christmas wish list. Town and county each brought seven potential SPET ballot items to the table with a whopping total of $91,232,953. In year’s past $70M in SPET initiatives has been considered too excessive. A 1% SPET brings in approximately $15M per year.
The two government entities varied somewhat in their expressed needs. The town, for instance, wants money for housing. The county does not. The town wants $10.6M to fix the pedestrian-unfriendly hodgepodge that is Gregory Lane. The county wants $4.5M to buy land for a relocation of the fairgrounds even though the lease (held by the town) does not expire until 2026 and there has been no formal community dialogue on the issue to date.
On the spreadsheet at any rate, wildlife appears to have taken a backseat to almost everything the town and county say they want. The county is hoping for $21M to expend the Rec Center, while the town’s big-ticket item is a $16M heavy equipment garage. Wildlife crossings is listed 5th on the county’s list at $2.5M bundled with other right of way amenities.
“A budget is the ultimate expression of an organization’s priorities,” councilman Jonathan Schechter said at Monday’s JIM. “If you look at the vision of the Comp Plan, it states right in the very beginning “to preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem.” There is very little in either the town or county budget that directly speaks to that.”
Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Greg Epstein also expressed a desire to see something for wildlife get on the ballot but advised it would take a lot more than $2.5M to make it happen.
Fairgrounds on the move?
Knowing the lists had to be whittled down at some point, BCC chair Natalia D. Macker asked if anyone wanted to remove something right off the bat. Or add something. Councilman Jim Stanford said he for one wasn’t ready to talk about moving the fairgrounds.
“I appreciate that it is forward-looking but it may be premature to have on a SPET ballot,” Stanford said. “Regarding a fairgrounds land purchase, I feel we have several more discussions to even get to the point before we would consider it as a possibility or even necessity. People might get alarmed to hear we are even considering it.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to say this but I actually agree with councilman Stanford,” said commissioner Mark Barron, who previously served on the council with Stanford as mayor. “The fairgrounds purchase, to me, doesn’t seem like a productive use of the people’s money. It’s used by both town and county. It’s owned by the town. It seems premature to be talking about that now.”
Others, however, believe the time to at least start thinking about the future of the fairgrounds is now.
“2026 is going to come soon enough. We can’t do relevant planning for the future unless we have a piece of property under contract,” said commissioner Luther Propst. “If we really are serious about moving the fair and building workforce housing there on a scale at this property that is large enough to make an impact, then we need to have the money so that our real estate agent can go out and get a piece of property under contract. Otherwise we are just going to be blowing smoke, and 2026 will come along and we’ll either make a decision by default or we won’t be able to realize a decision that we’ve made.”
Councilman Arne Jorgensen also prefers to have the fairgrounds at least in the discussion for now.
“I think it’s important to have an item on the fairgrounds. Sure, there needs to be a process here. We need to consider things like: Are there better places for the fair and rodeo? I appreciate the fact that it’s here but not necessarily that amount,” he said.
Commissioner Macker doesn’t want to be caught holding the expired lease come 2026. “The lease runs to 2026. That is the deadline the county is considering. That might not happen but we don’t want to be identifying a new parcel on the day our lease expires,” she said.
Newcomb said he is in favor of moving the fairgrounds south of town but agrees it needs to be a community discussion teed up through a formalized process.
“There is a whole zoning process that needs to go on and a community discussion that needs to go on. We need to formalize this process. The public needs to be engaged,” Newcomb said. “I am in favor to some degree of moving it south of town. But we need this mapped out in black and white otherwise we are going to get out ahead of ourselves only to find out, politically, it turns out it’s just not going to happen or people don’t want it.”
Other concerns were voiced at the JIM. Epstein would like to see the Highway 22/390 redesign approached in a more holistic manner to include a variety of multi-use concerns including wildlife crossings, a potential new fairground facility, and other efforts perhaps targeted for Stilson. Mayor Pete Muldoon pushed for a climbing gym component added to the maintenance facility if possible.
Barron was hesitant to include anything for housing “until and unless these two boards decide that private property solutions can be part of, and an important leg of, deed-restricted housing options. So, I would not put that on a ballot,” he said.
Town and county elected officials gave staff direction to explore a little deeper what a cost-benefit analysis might look like for each SPET item. None were dismissed outright. Nothing was added.
To appear on a special election ballot for November 5, 2019, everything needs to be decided and locked down by July 17. The joint boards will talk SPET again at their June JIM.
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