Commissioner candidates galore
PJH: Where do you stand with the topic of consolidation with the county? What would you consolidate? Is this an effective way to save money? Do you view the town and county as competing on any level (for instance, sales tax revenue)?
Scott Anderson: Consolidation would be a great achievement should we get the state legislature to allow it. I don’t think the goal is to eliminate positions, but to improve efficiency. I support efforts for consolidation
Ben Ellis: Town and county are unusually integrated and we continue to align departments. At a minimum, we have gained efficiency and streamlined policy between the two governments. Almost all of the recent changes have been managed through attrition, so I don’t anticipate any direct job losses. The primary challenge to fully integrating town and county is that state statute limits our ability to form a single, home-rule government structure.
Mark Newcomb: Consolidation is not a high priority for me. There might be some gains to be had long term, and I would pursue those. A more immediate concern is making sure we are capable of maintaining the high level of service we have asked for as a community. Do we have the staff to meet the needs of citizens on our front lines at the treasurer’s, clerk’s, and planning office? Are our fire, EMS and sheriff’s departments able to meet demands placed on them by our growing population and changing visitor demographic? Can we maintain our parks and pathways to the level that we are used to as a county? These questions are more pressing, and I support hiring a qualified county administrator to help commissioners carry out policies that assure that we are able to fund our priorities.
Mark Obringer: I support the legislators at the state level allowing the people of Teton County to create and vote on a form of government that best serves our community. I believe that this new form of government will be more efficient therefore could save money. More importantly the citizens of Teton County would be governed by one body not two.
Paul Perry: Town and county should continue to explore all opportunities for consolidation of appropriate departments. I am a strong believer in the one valley, one voice concept. It is going to take time, but I believe we can find more ways to combine services to save the taxpayers money. If the town and county do not continue to operate on an even basis, then the town may have to implement a mill levy tax to try to keep up with the county which could increase rental rates for apartments as well as commercial businesses. Town and county need to move forward as one cohesive unit as best as possible.
Hank Phibbs: Teton County and the Town of Jackson have a number of joint departments, including Parks and Recreation, Pathways, START Bus transit, Fire/EMS, Planning and the community animal shelter. These joint departments provide more efficient services to the people of our valley. I support consolidating local government agencies and services where possible.
I do not see the town and county competing on any level and have experienced just the opposite in my service as a county commissioner. The town and county engage together effectively and should continue to work cooperatively to address our valley’s needs and to provide the services our community needs.
Reynolds Pomeroy: In concept, we should be keeping our eyes open for opportunities to eliminate waste and duplicity of services. Consolidation may provide some of those opportunities, but I have not heard a definitive case made for consolidation across the board. But more importantly, consolidation is not currently possible and could take a decade or longer to achieve the enabling legislation at the state level.
[Consolidating law enforcement] has been discussed and even proposed on previous occasions and there have been too many obstacles, practical or otherwise, to generate momentum on the idea thus far. As with other areas of possible consolidation, we have to maintain levels of service that provide for the health, safety and welfare, in addition to being cost-effective.
With Tyler’s current status, [consolidation of planning departments] is essentially underway at a preliminary level. I suspect additional consolidation will occur in these two departments, and I currently support the trajectory.
Is this an effective way to save money? It can be. We need to better understand and continue to explore cost savings as ONE incentive amongst others. Where there’s duplication of effort, we have an opportunity to eliminate waste and inefficiency.
I’m not sure competition is the right word regarding sales taxes. Sales tax is divvied by state formula tied to population – this balance has changed slightly over the years, albeit meaningfully for the party that gets cut. The Comp Plan envisions greater density/population growth in town which could impact the tax split.
Smokey Rhea: I would not be opposed to investigating the possibility of consolidating. Our obligation is to be fiscally responsible. That means we should always be looking for ways to improve staff efficiency and save money. I know consolidating the law enforcement departments has been debated numerous times in the past. The fact that it hasn’t happened tells me there are significant obstacles in the way. Several departments have already combined and some cannot because of state statutes. The planning departments also seem logical to consolidate. Since we are already sharing a department head it makes sense to consider this at this time.
Before consolidating any departments I would want to do a thorough investigation to ensure that we wouldn’t be sacrificing quality services for a small financial gain. Unintended consequences may arise without a solid plan and complete cooperation and solidarity between the entities. That type of relationship between town and county hasn’t always existed.
Paul Vogelheim: Consolidation would be preferred but current Wyoming statutes do not allow this. We electeds in the county and town have made some huge strides in working together with joint departments like Parks and Rec, Fire/EMS, START, Pathways and soon our planning departments. Also, joint boards like the JH Airport [have run smoothly].
I would like to have joint oversight of the Housing Authority. I would like to look again at town police and sheriff consolidation (we considered this five years ago). Savings were estimated to be nearly $1 million with law enforcement rolled up under the sheriff’s office, and town managed as a precinct.
[I don’t see competition between the county and town with the exception of some fairness at times. But, generally, we have cooperative relationship and need to expand this spirit in order find efficiencies to avoid sales or property tax (especially in the town) increases.
PJH: Do you support a continuation of the 2 percent lodging tax?
Scott Anderson: Yes, I will vote for it. The tax has been an important funding source for the town and county as well as a proven element in improving our year-round economy.
Ben Ellis: I support extending the lodging tax in its current form for another four years. The lodging tax is paid for primarily by visitors and much of the money is used for critical visitor services, such as START, Pathways, cleaning restrooms, etc. Without the lodging tax, these services would be paid for by general tax revenue, including property tax and sales tax.
Mark Newcomb: I advocate for another four years of lodging tax and will vote for it. Lodging tax revenue contributes significantly to START, Parks and Recreation, and Pathways; also infrastructure that serves visitors and residents alike. I would support wielding our influence at the state level to shift more of its revenue towards the infrastructure mentioned above that makes our county a truly remarkable place to visit. If the lodging tax promotion helps promote the off-season, great. But I think our county will sell itself so long as we adhere to our community values: environmental protection and responsible growth.
Mark Obringer: Yes, because we need our guests to help pay for their demands on our infrastructure.
Paul Perry: I do believe the lodging tax is very beneficial to our community. It helps offset a large portion of visitor services that the citizens would have to pay if it was not in place. It helps elected officials from having to raise property taxes as well as promoting our off-season.
Hank Phibbs: I strongly support the continuation of the lodging tax. The lodging tax provides significant benefits to the people of Teton County. Thirty percent of the lodging tax proceeds pay for important visitor impact services, which allows us to fund other needed local services without raising taxes.
Reynolds Pomeroy: [I am] absolutely [for it]. The consensus is this is a “good” tax, paid almost entirely by visitors, and the verdict seems to be that they are not pushing back on the 2 percent. Because it is uniquely targeted and distributed to address promotion, visitor impacts and the general revenue funds (hard won at the state level) it specifically responds to Teton County’s circumstances.
Smokey Rhea: I am definitely a supporter of the lodging tax and will vote to continue it. It is one of the best ways for tourists to help offset their impact on our community. The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Powers board has allocated 60 percent of the collected funds to promote travel and tourism to Teton County. This includes funds to develop and promote programs and events to build the shoulder seasons. This is important as we try to build year round employment to lessen the hardship the off- seasons create for our workforce and economy.
Paul Vogelheim: Yes, I would like to see the lodging tax again and was a huge initiator and supporter of this tax four years ago. Two percent is OK but I am opposed to 4 percent.
PJH: Is the LDR process taking too long? What can you do to help get the LDRs completed? On a side note, should a moratorium on the PRD tool continue, does it need tweaking, or should it be taken off the table completely?
Scott Anderson: It has taken long enough. I would ask for the LDRs to be approved immediately. The PRD tool should be available in some fashion so that we can consider creative development.
Ben Ellis: The process is not taking too long, but it has been a long time. The LDRs are an outgrowth of the Comprehensive Plan and they are very technical. One of the primary goals of the Comp Plan is to shift development patterns from the rural to more developed parts of town and county. If we move the regulations too quickly we will create loopholes that undermine community values and interfere with property rights.
The PRD is one important tool for achieving these goals and staff will be recommending changes to the PRD. The freeze on the PRD is appropriate and is anticipated to be removed by the end of this year.
Mark Newcomb: The LDR process is taking too long. There are three important considerations to move the process along that I would address. One, we need enough planning staff to allow those working on the amendments to stay focused on the amendments and not get pulled into other tasks. Two, we must ensure public participation. Three, we must ensure that commissioners stick to policy level decisions and don’t try and weigh in on every special interest that arises. I’ve learned a lot in my six years on the planning commission and am eager to apply that experience.
The PRD should remain in moratorium. Our community has committed to limiting residential growth and guiding it out of the unincorporated county towards town and complete neighborhoods. To reach our goal of a 60/40 split between residential development in town and complete neighborhoods versus development in the unincorporated county, we need to restructure the PRD tool. It’s been a helpful tool to bring land under permanent conservation easement, and I’d like to make sure it accomplishes our other goal of guiding residential development out of our open spaces.
Mark Obringer: Land development regulations are very difficult and we should take the time needed to make them predicable, measurable, and as understandable as possible. Having done this before, I believe this will be the most meaningful undertaking of the next few years.
Paul Perry: There are some of the LDRs that could be done very quickly and cost effectively. Some zones, (BP for example) should be contracted out to a private company. There are no real controversies and the planning departments do not have the staff to complete the LDR’s in a timely manner.
Hank Phibbs: I am frustrated with the length of time it has taken us to get started with the updating of our Land Development Regulations. I will continue to push for the completion of our LDR updates, but we must respect our reduced staffing levels and ensure that our community has a full opportunity to engage in our LDR updates, so they reflect our community values.
The Planned Residential Development tool was put in place to provide a significant public benefit, permanently preserved open space, in exchange for increased developmental density. It has provided significant public benefit in terms of preserved open space at the 3x multiplier for density. It needs to be tweaked to remove the higher density bonus levels, 6x and 9x, as they have not been used, and allow for density levels in the rural areas of our county that are not consistent with the values and vision in our updated Comprehensive Plan.
Reynolds Pomeroy: Yes, and the public is making their frustrations known. If elected, I’ll call for and support an aggressive meeting schedule complete with deadlines and hold the electeds and staff accountable to meet both.
With an accelerated process to complete the LDRs, it may be prudent to extend the moratorium on PRDs. That said, I have not heard from the development community that this is immediately critical to projects. Because only the lower density options have been used thus far, we have little empirical data to suggest the higher density incentives are valuable or not. Tweaking it may be sufficient.
Smokey Rhea: It has taken way too long to finish the LDRs. We need to finish the update of the zoning and development options for the rural areas that we want to conserve and preserve so we can build where it makes sense. The PRD is a performance zoning tool that allows additional density in exchange for permanently restricted open space that meets the definition of community benefit. Currently, as written, the PRD does not align with the 2012 Comprehensive Plan so the freeze was implemented to allow for the PRD to be rewritten along with the LDRs. The time has come to make the completion of the re-write, with public input, a priority so that we are no longer languishing in a state of “wait.”
To accomplish this, my priority will be to ensure the planning department is adequately staffed and supported. This community has an abundance of dedicated, educated and resourceful citizens. I would tap into those riches and resurrect and expand the Workforce Housing Stakeholder Group to develop community solutions for a community problem.
Paul Vogelheim: The Comp Plan got off track and it took too long but now we need to be disciplined and focus on our LDRs update schedule. I support our current moratorium on the PRD, but only until the end of this year. PRD has value but needs to be tweaked.
PJH: Support your position on whether or not the board of commissioners should have gotten a pay raise.
Scott Anderson: No, [on the pay raise]. I would ask for the pay to be returned to previous levels. If that failed, I would not accept the pay raise, but rather return it to the county or donate it to a nonprofit.
Ben Ellis: All elected offices are public service. However, most of the county elected jobs – treasurer, clerk, sheriff, commissioner – are technical jobs requiring half- to full-time commitments that far exceed volunteer public service. Under state statue the commission must vote for the pay levels for all county elected officers, and the pay rate for the commission goes into effect following an election, so commissioners do not vote for their salary. In order to avoid controversy and arbitrary salary levels for the commission, the board has typically set commissioner’s salary at half the other electeds. By statute, elected official’s salaries are set every four years. This year we had numerous workshops to understand the recommended structure brought forward by the other elected officials. We had no public comment in opposition to the proposal and the salaries are similar to other county governments.
Rather than limiting our commissioners to the rich and/or retired, higher salary for the commission attracts a broader diversity of candidates. We are seeing that this year. The reality is this is the politics of non-issue; it sounds like an issue of substance, but the total costs for all commissioners next year would increase by about $15,000, less than 0.05 percent of our operating budget. It’s time for the candidates to focus on the real community issues of housing, transportation and the impacts of climate change, all of which require investment today to avoid serious community problems in the future.
Mark Newcomb: I would support a move back to the past level of pay plus some cost of living increase. I would like to be part of a commission that operates at a policy level, utilizes its staff for management of details and meets less often than the commission has over the past several years. It’s definitely a commitment to civic service, as I well know with my time on the planning commission. I want to make sure I have time outside of my commission work to pursue my work in environmental economics.
Mark Obringer: I personally decided to run for the county commission before there was a pay raise.
Paul Perry: I believe this was a bad decision as it puts the commissioner position into the “job” category instead of public service. This is financial creep in the county budget that adds to the taxpayers’ burden and over time could cost more in property taxes and thus increased rents for businesses and residents.
Hank Phibbs: I support the commissioner pay increase. The increase will pay commissioners $50,000 per year for their services. The job of county commissioner in this valley is complex and requires a considerable amount of time. Keeping the salary low deprives many people in our valley, those without other income sources, from serving. It eliminates a significant part of our community and insures that only well-off people can afford to serve. I believe that the commissioner salary should allow more people in our community the opportunity to serve.
Reynolds Pomeroy: Unfortunate timing, insufficient transparency and public discussion, and size of raise in comparison to existing basis were all elements in making this so controversial. My personal feeling is that the two main claims against it: it will only attract applicants seeking “a job,” and it will promote career politicians, ring hollow to my ear. I have faith in the electorate to weed through such motivations, and ultimately nip any “career” in the bud. I think there is a significant pool of residents who would throw their hats in the ring if compensation afforded them the opportunity to leave their current work, or go to half time, but it would be hard to justify dropping all or part of a $30, $40, $50K+ job unless you’re retired, semi-retired or otherwise financially secure, as the cost of living in this county is well known.
Smokey Rhea: I was not part of the discussion and do not think it is fair to second guess their decision without all the facts. I am certain their decision was not made in haste. The job requirements and responsibilities have certainly expanded since the last salary increase and I doubt the pay is high for the amount of time required. If elected I would not be opposed to revisiting the issue, however.
Paul Vogelheim: I voted against the commissioners’ 33 percent pay increase. Our job is all about public service and it should not be a career. It should be part-time, and we need to lead by example.
PJH: Do you feel the county is somewhat short-staffed (planning director, administrator, compliance officers, attorneys). If not, explain. If so, what’s going on?
Scott Anderson: Yes. I think losing so many key employees in a short time is a sign of dysfunctional leadership.
Ben Ellis: In the spirit of running the county as efficiently as possible and keeping the budget balanced through a deep recession, county staffing is at a good level. We continue to receive demand for more services that require additional staff, but we are not at a crisis point yet. The real concern going forward is employee housing. The county is way behind on developing employee housing for emergency service staff, senior staff, and other employees.
Mark Newcomb: Yes, the county is short-staffed. The county lost the equivalent of 40 full-time employees between 2007 and 2013. Some of those positions are being filled. I would make it a priority to fill key positions based on policy level decisions. I think completing our development regulations and standards is a priority and would want our planning department to have the resources they need to complete that process in as timely a manner as possible.
Mark Obringer: No, don’t take on more challenges than you need to.
Paul Perry: I see some of the challenges facing the county for the vacancies could be contributed to the commissioners as they try to interject themselves in too many details. I believe they should set policy, put competent good people in charge and let them do their jobs. I have seen too many projects piled on departments and not prioritizing. They are chasing too many new ideas every time they pop up instead of taking care of the back log they have.
Hank Phibbs: The county government is short-staffed. Significant staffing reductions were made during the economic downturn. The work loads created by the improving economy are not sustainable and the county is adding staff to insure that community needs and services can be provided by staff who have the time to get the work done. The county is engaged in a comprehensive salary analysis to insure that county employees are fairly compensated for the work they do for our community.
Reynolds Pomeroy: Yes. The individual circumstances behind vacancies vary. I believe these positions offer a lot and are attractive to applicants from pay scale, quality of life, professional challenge, professional development viewpoints. The compensation study will provide additional and current insight.
Smokey Rhea: We are currently understaffed in several departments. The sheriff’s office is a major concern as it involves the safety of our citizens. Dispatch is critically understaffed and certainly not a service we can do without. I believe that the lack of housing is the main cause for the difficulty in securing staff. People want to live where they work and if the job is stressful having to commute especially during the winter just adds to the stress. It is the responsibility of elected officials to insure housing is available for the staff that is critical to the health and safety of the community.
The planning department has also been operating as an understaffed department. The town has shared their department head with the county for two years now. During this time the county has not been able to complete our LDRs, which are crucial in order to move forward. Being understaffed has resulted in delays that are not in the best interest of the county.
Paul Vogelheim: Change provides opportunities for improvements and new efficiencies. I’m not concerned with our current issues.
PJH: Who would you vote for to serve on the board of county commissioners if you had only one vote and could not vote for yourself? Why?
Scott Anderson: I would vote for Mark Obringer, a friend and colleague, who probably knows more about the planning of this community than the rest of us combined.
Ben Ellis: It’s a toss up between Mahatma Gandhi and Yoda. Gandhi spoke little so meetings would be short and to the point. Yoda is a Democrat (not many people know that). He is, like, 1,000 years old, so he has some wisdom, and he is useful in a skirmish.
Mark Newcomb: Tough choice when you have a field like the one we have. We have a candidate who deserves to be in the conservation hall of fame, if there were such a thing and other candidates with strong track records of service and commitment to the community. But we need leaders in this very special place who share my commitment to the long view. I think Ben Ellis takes a long view. We don’t agree on everything, but his views on climate change and our county’s capital commitments reflect his long-term outlook.
Mark Obringer: Not an appropriate question.
Paul Perry: I vote privately.
Hank Phibbs: Nice question. All of the other candidates are wonderful folks who are willing to stand up and serve our community. I leave those choices to the voters of our valley.
Reynolds Pomeroy: Silly hypothetical question, sorry. I’ll leave this to the voters with their (up to) three votes.
Smokey Rhea: I would vote for Mark Newcomb because of his education, planning experience and love for the community he grew up in.
Paul Vogelheim: Any candidate with proven business management experience.