SPET spat reveals government ‘dysfunction’

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – A growing rift between town and county governing bodies has become increasingly evident as discussions on how each would like to spend the extra penny of tax dedicated to specific projects have bogged down yet again just weeks before a July 17 deadline.

After a spring workshop where indications pointed to elected officials reserving SPET this round to a few small government-only stopgap items (the extra penny of sales tax allowed by state statute would expire once the projects passed in 2017 are fully funded sometime in early 2020), that idea was quickly abandoned when town and county staff introduced a record 14 items totaling some $164 million.

Each side—town and county—offered seven items it would like to see on a November ballot. A few were cut early on including; money toward a potential relocation of the fairgrounds, a possible community park-and-ride facility, and funds dedicated to community restrooms. Even a sticker shock $60 million toward renovation of the county courthouse was taken off the table after speculation the county could find $2 million or so in its general fund to get the ball rolling there.

That still left about $77 million in spending on the government’s wish list—a list of 10 items town authorities wanted to bundle in an all-or-nothing approach. County leaders balked at that, believing it a loser at the polls bordering on political suicide. They favored the traditional a la carte approach letting the voters choose each item on its own merit.

Monday melee, Tuesday’s toe-to-toe

Two dedicated meetings of the 10 elected officials early this week still could not get anything accomplished. Neither side budged on the bundling issue and patience began to fray several times as chair BCC, Natalia Macker, more than once was short and sharp with her colleagues, asking they please try to avoid long monologues and head-bashing.

Commissioner Mark Barron is in a unique position as the only current elected official to serve on both sides of the table. He ran the town as mayor for decades before finally stepping down and joining the board of county commissioners in 2018.

“It’s frustrating sitting for hours on end and coming up with another shot at the same thing,” Barron told Buckrail. “I don’t understand the often-unanimous front coming out of the town. I don’t know either why or where that is coming from but we’re not getting a goddamn thing done.”

After it became clear bundling all 10 items in one package was not to the county’s liking, town reps offered ‘packaging’ shiny community wants like wildlife crossings with less glamorous albatross initiatives like the $10.5M Gregory Lane infrastructure project.

But again, county leaders bristled at that notion, saying a bundle is a bundle and they weren’t having it.

“We are dysfunctional,” commissioner Mark Newcomb admitted to Buckrail. “It used to be you could talk things over when you didn’t see eye-to-eye. You felt like you had this sense of a relationship that allowed you to say things more freely and work together. [Jim] Stanford, for instance, I think is someone who you can dialogue reasonably with but the mayor, he’s locked and loaded. I’ve never seen us like this.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon is leading the charge for the town regarding bundling. After reading a long treatise on his position Monday and stating he had no interest in anything other than an all-or-nothing bundle approach, Muldoon made gestures Tuesday that he might be willing to consider two or three mini-bundles—an idea he says he will present formally at the next meeting on July 15.

Muldoon says it is not a lack of trust in voters that leads him to prefer bundling, it is his notion that he knows better what the town needs by nature of the job he has been elected to do.

“The average voter does not have the time or capacity to fully analyze the capital improvement needs of our community,” Muldoon said at Monday’s meeting. “And that’s okay. That is why the residents have hired us—to attend those meetings and to listen to the public and to read those staff reports. That’s our job, and doing that job doesn’t show a lack of trust in the voters. It shows trust that when they voted for us, they did so knowing they wanted us to represent them. This is the very definition of the representative democracy upon which America was founded.”

Commissioner Barron is vehemently opposed to bundling items, preferring to provide an a la carte list for voters to decide.

“Look, you have your constituents and we have ours. Sometimes those are the same people,” Barron told Buckrail. “But it seems like the town is hellbent on packaging this in one ballot question and I think that’s a shame. People expect a SPET menu to select from. They will take it very seriously. I think this process should respect that.”

Commissioner Luther Propst made his opinion clear at Monday’s JIM, saying bundling amounted to a political ploy that threatened to dominate any particular ballot initiates.

“In bundling, we will lose many voters who would have been a ‘yes’ vote. It shifts the discussion from real needs that might be lost, to the process instead of the substance,” Propst said at Monday’s meeting. “People are more likely to vote against their pet peeves than for their pet projects. Machiavelli found it would be a very perilous thing to change the order of things.”

Reading the tea leaves and listening to his constituents, Propst added that bundling would be a very risky proposition that could be perceived as a measure that would “reduce or marginalize the discretion or prerogative of our voters at a time when voter rights are under siege.”

Compromise in sight?

“Clearly we’re at an impasse between these two bodies. What gets us a compromise?” councilor Arne Jorgensen asked at another JIM on Tuesday.

Commissioner Greg Epstein is the lone county representative to lean toward grouping certain items—perhaps 2-3 total—as a way to pair core needs of government with sexier community wants.

“One bundle all or nothing bundle is hedging bets too much. But given the last [SPET] election experience, I feel in my heart of hearts a couple of core needs in the community that are not sexy bright shiny objects—they are just core utilitarian needs—aligned with certain other items and propositions [might be more palatable for the voter]. Shiny objects will help carry these utilitarian needs,” Epstein noted.

At the town level, councilman Jonathan Schechter admitted he had changed his opinion about giving voters all 10 SPET items in an all-or-nothing proposal, saying he was “reluctantly coming down on the side of a la carte.”

Everybody I’ve heard from, 100% of them, have been against bundling. Not one said bundle,” Schechter shared with his colleagues Monday. “I think we’ve lost the political argument right out of the gate if we do it this way. Do we risk losing the trust of the voters if we do it this way?”

Schechter, a noted local economist, said his number crunching leads him to believe some iffy ballot items, like money for a vehicle maintenance facility, had a better chance of passing than he originally thought.

Jorgensen believes the same approach yields the same results where big-ticket core issue items like a vehicle maintenance facility—previously shot down by voters along with an affordable housing measure—might not be valued by 51% of the community. But on Tuesday, he appeared willing to bend a little to consider multiple packages.

“If we want a different outcome we should do something different. No risk no different outcome. I still want to know how we get these items passed if we don’t do something differently,” Jorgensen said. “Multiple bundles by a thematic approach is intellectually honest. But I would have a hard time supporting a la carte unless I see something different and I don’t see it.”

Jorgensen’s hot button issue appears to be housing. Several times he interrupted motions to ask for a friendly amendment that would include a housing ‘rider’ to a la carte items proposed by his peers. No one on the county side was willing to accommodate him, and more than one effort fizzled when Jorgensen flatly stated, “I won’t support because it does not include a housing element.”

Schechter, for one, was not willing to go there, calling housing a millstone that threatened to sink anything attached to it.

“My concern about housing is I would rather have a separate housing item rather than have a little embedded in each item. I worry about the deleterious effects of having a mini-bundle in each one,” he said.

Hailey Morton Levinson said she preferred a bundling approach but showed signs Tuesday she might be willing to move a little on that saying, “I have a sense that our community is not ready to have a bundled SPET as much as I want to do that.”

It was veteran councilman Jim Stanford who offered the olive branch, proposing a true stopgap SPET round for 2019 that would include a small a la carte list totaling $20-24 million and leaving bundling talks to a possible 2020 SPET.

“We can take a small bite now and talk about a bigger bite perhaps in 2020,” he offered.

Stanford added he still preferred a mini-bundling approach likening pairing core needs with more palatable wants as akin to making sure veggies were on a menu with dessert.

Stanford’s greatest concern is the escalating expense of running basic town services with few sources of funding available.

“Times are changing and we are faced with greater obstacles with funding every year. There are few funding mechanisms at our disposal,” he said, adding that money for Gregory Lane topped his list as a critical project that has been pushed aside for six years now.

Stanford proposed an a la carte SPET consisting of Gregory Lane infrastructure for $10.5M, wildlife crossings for $7.5M, additional firefighting apparatus for $1.6M, and $4.4M toward helping the Historical Museum move into the Genevieve block.

Commissioner Propst agreed, saying, “We could pick one or two items in this list and defer others until 2020 when we might have a discussion concerning bundling.”

Falling short in the 11th hour

But building an a la carte list proved more contentious than the debate over bundling. Each side wanted to see their pet projects on the list for differing amounts until commissioner Newcomb dropped a bomb on the town suggesting if they were so desperate to fund basic core needs why would they not consider levying an additional 8 mills currently allowed by state statute but unused buy the town. The Town of Jackson is one of a handful of municipalities in Wyoming that does not levy the full amount allowed by law on its property tax allocations.

Morton Levinson fired back, “I appreciate you bringing that up. The reason Teton County relies so heavily on SPET is visitors fund half or more of it.”

As the bodies haggled over what items they would like to see on the 2019 SPET ballot, it became evident an agreement would not be reached without another meeting.

“It would appear we are going nowhere,” Barron stated in the waning minutes of Tuesday’s session.

“What are you doing to compromise?” Stanford asked of the county.

“Ten million is not a slight compromise,” Barron answered, referring to an amended SPET list presented late Tuesday that totaled $67.5M.

The 10 electeds could not get SPET across the finish line after two straight days of hammering on details. With personal schedules getting busier as summer gets in full swing, the next SPET meeting was scheduled for July 15 at 1 pm. The town is slated for a workshop at 3 pm so the 10 elected officials will have to get done in two hours what they’ve been unable to accomplish in two months.

“What would happen if these bodies are at an impasse?” asked one elected official Tuesday.

“There would be no SPET,” county attorney Keith Gingery answered.

County Clerk Sherry Daigle says SPET ballot language needs to be confirmed by July 17 in order to appear on a general election ballot November 5. If a meeting of the minds does not happen by July 17, the extra penny of sales tax dedicated as specific purpose excise tax would expire.

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