Town approves budget after last-minute amendments

JACKSON, Wyo. — Finalizing the budget has come down to the wire, with just weeks left before Fiscal Year 2021 is scheduled to start (July 1). The process wrapped up Monday at both a workshop and council meeting but not without councilmembers expressing some frustration at last-minute amendments.

It was six “adjustments” to the budget town councilors were asked to approve, ranging from relatively benign proposed increases in START Bus, Housing Department, and liability insurance; to six-figure add-ons to Fire/EMS and Parks and Rec.

Councilman Jim Stanford expressed a firm ‘no’ on the Housing Department’s request for $20k to fund various programs and START’s $18k for a ski pass component of its service to Teton Village, and aired grievances at cost overruns at Parks and Rec work/live shop on Snow King Avenue ($735k) and a $300k ask by Fire/EMS.

“We’ve been adding these things left and right over the last couple of weeks and I thought we had settled this,” Stanford noted during Monday’s meeting. “I understand the complexity with the Station 1 remodel. [And COVID]. I understand mistakes can happen. But when you put this together with the $735,000 bill we are getting for the change order on the Parks and Rec shop, we’re talking about $800,000 in additional expenditures that the town is being presented with at the eleventh-and-a-half hour when we are about to finalize the budget. It’s tough.”

Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and councilman Jonathan Schechter also said they were “annoyed” by the last-minute budget-busters including a $40,000 jump in town premiums to insure some $110 million in assets.

Defund the police?

With the ‘minor’ annoyances out of the way during the afternoon workshop, electeds used the regular nighttime meeting to share their thoughts on police funding and myriad community issues brought to light in recent public protests in Jackson.

Representatives of a new grassroots group, Act Now JH!, asked councilors to reconsider the police budget and the function of police at-large.

“Policing is reactionary, not preventative,” said Rachel Attias, a representative of the group. The overall ask was to take money from the police budget and redistribute to more “preventative” sectors like healthcare, housing, and social services.

Stanford said he appreciated the dialogue and admitted that he, too, had concerns about the amount of money spent on law enforcement in Jackson.

“Ten, twelve, fifteen years ago I might have been sitting with these folks wanting to have this conversation, and I applaud you for asking all of us to do better,” Stanford said. “I came into this office eight years ago campaigning on reducing funding for law enforcement. And I’ve spent eight years scrutinizing the Jackson Police Department budget and I’ve been hard-pressed to find any money in there that wasn’t justified.”

Councilor Jim Stanford at Monday’s town council meeting. Photo: TOJ

Mayor Pete Muldoon also valued the community discourse.

“We have budget meetings every year. No one ever attends them. I find the engagement on this issue gratifying,” Muldoon said.

The mayor added he met with Chief of Police Todd Smith and was satisfied the department has a good handle on the issue of use of force and a strong track record serving the community. Regarding the funding of the police department, Muldoon said he is very interested in helping the community “do the hard work” necessary to find the appropriate levels of funding and the most effective use of the local police force.

Morton-Levinson added, “This is probably the most public comment we have received on the budget in any one year. We can always look at our systems and how we can do better. This is absolutely something we need to address in Jackson, nationwide, and individually.”

Schechter said a vision of a better Jackson is what we are all after and what ties the community together. “How do we find the best Jackson, the ideal Jackson. How do we form a more perfect union?” he pondered.

Arne Jorgensen said issues brought to the forefront recently are larger than simply policing and merit further discussions. As far as the budget, though, he reminded the budget approved Monday night was “wholly unsustainable.”

“In addition to cutting across the board, we’ve had to borrow from ourselves,” he said.

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