THE BUZZ: Housing Hinges on Loot

By on November 3, 2015

With the Housing Action Plan approved where will the money come from?

Action Jackson

Potential apartment rental zones care of the Housing Action Plan. (Photo: Town of Jackson/Teton County)

Potential apartment rental zones care of the Housing Action Plan. (Photo: Town of Jackson/Teton County)

Town and county officials were indeed in the home stretch at Monday’s joint information meeting. If they weren’t aware of that, joint planner Tyler Sinclair reminded electeds that, in his math, 90 percent equaled 100.

“This is a large, visionary document and there will be many additions and stages of change,” Sinclair told the panel referring to the Housing Action Plan. “If we are 90 percent there, I would say we are there. Keep that in the back of your minds.”

Some 51 alterations were made to the massive 92-page document that has so far totaled $118,000, 1,200 man-hours, and eight separate housing studies to compile. Local leaders began the meeting by zeroing in the organizational structure of what a new housing authority would look like – who reports to whom and whose ass do we chew when things don’t go right. Smoky Rhea, in particular wanted to know.

Sinclair assured officials a housing director would be in place no later than July 1, 2016. So would a housing manager.

How are we going to pay all these people, Jim Stanford wondered. A discussion on dedicated funding via a “community priority fund” was next on the afternoon’s agenda.

An agitated Bob Lenz worried aloud about how changing state statute to create a regional housing authority would fall into place given the usual Pluto-orbiting pace legislators worked at in Cheyenne. “I’ve never read the statute that would authorize a regional housing authority,” he said. “And these diagrams are very confusing. This will require compliance like we’ve never seen before. It’s going to be ugly. It’s going to take money, people and time. But if the majority feels this way I will just shut up.”

Don Frank was a little more optimistic.

“Accountability seems to exist under the organizational chart. We will see to that. We always do,” Frank said. “We need a housing director that will walk into the office prepared to work under some autonomy because we don’t have the bandwidth to micromanage. And this plan is not actionable until we adopt it, so let’s adopt it.”

County attorney Keith Gingery provided a bit of insight on how painful a legislative process might be. He explained a regional housing authority could have three board members, any more than that would require modification to statute or perhaps the creation of a hybrid board – “Which I don’t think would be that difficult to pass since it affects only us,” Gingery said, referring to Teton County’s unique position of having only one municipality: Jackson.

“I have had talks with Leland Christensen. We were envisioning coming back to you in January with a resolution about doing some of these organizational changes,” Gingery said. “But if you are moving in a direction to phase out the Housing Authority, what does it matter? You can’t get rid of them overnight, but down the road it looks like you are headed there.”

Stanford urged his peers to adopt a formal commitment to back two shovel-ready projects already in the works. The Housing Authority’s The Grove project in midstream, and the Housing Trust’s 18-unit rental development planned for Redmond Street.

“I feel the need to try to respond to the community’s needs. Before we go looking at other plans, let’s at least agree to commit to funding what is already in the pipeline,” Stanford said. “The town has already set aside money for affordable housing. I don’t know what the county has done, but knowing you have more ample resources, we can house additional people perhaps by the end of the year.”

Stanford’s plea gained no traction with his fellow politicians. Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson chose to focus more on the long-term function of the housing plan before them. BCC chair Barb Allen agreed that existing projects merited priority attention but took exception with Stanford’s accusation the county was sitting on a pot of gold.

“Nowhere in the document does it mention jointly funded projects,” Allen complained. “Even though Councilman Stanford believes the county is flush with cash, we need to come to an agreement in the first six months about the ‘how’ of joint funding.”

Discussion continued about whether there would be two separate boards and two distinct leaders at the imaginary housing authority – one for outreach and compliance, and one for making sure units get put on the ground.

“People don’t really want the Housing Authority board involved in how money is being spent,” Lenz said. “And I don’t think you want the Housing Authority board advising the person who is going to be making decisions on how money will be spent.”

In that case, Stanford doubted whether two boards, neutered of budgetary authority, could possibly look attractive enough to volunteers to ever be filled.

With three more tweaks, the 10 commissioners and council members unanimously approved the Housing Action Plan with Lenz stating for the record that it had “serious problems.”

Who pays?

The dilemma before the joint civic leaders regarding paying for what they had just passed seemed oppressive. It settled into the chambers like the wood smoke smog blanket that suffocates the valley on high pressure winter days.

Town administrator Bob McLaurin presented the nuts and bolts of how funding sources might be tapped. When the rhetoric got complicated he simply pressed electeds to at least get their act together by March, when deadlines loomed for getting anything on an election ballot that would ask residents to pay for housing and transportation with their tax dollars.

Leaders were split evenly on whether they favored a SPET initiative to finance the community priority fund or whether an added penny of general sales tax would do the trick. On one hand, an added penny of sales tax dedicated to housing and transportation needs would gouge visitors more than locals, McLaurin said. Locals, after all, prefer Amazon and Idaho Falls. Also, using SPET for housing would deny other parties from tapping the feed trough for their schemes.

Ever leery of SPET because of its inherent inability to pay for ongoing maintenance and salary costs, Stanford said he backed a dedicated penny of sales tax.

“SPET is for capital improvements. I think it’s a matter of good governance to go with general tax revenue. It’s a smarter way to approach the problem,” Stanford said. “We just entered into an agreement we can’t afford. What I’ve heard time and again from this community is, ‘we want you to do more.’ Fine, we will hear from the community whether $.06 is palatable.”

Mayor Sara Flitner disagreed. “I support SPET over a general penny. I think it will be easier to pass,” she said. “I realize there will be some disagreements over what gets on the ballot and we will need to make some tough decisions. Not including St. John’s, we are approaching $99 million in SPET requests. But this is not a free-for-all. The community is looking for some leadership on this.”

Timing of a ballot tax query was also deliberated. A May election proposal would be put before low voter turnout, at least compared to August. Would that be good or bad? Two separate SPET ballots were proposed. Town officials griped about having to pay for the Budge landslide while county leaders said they were still trying to figure out how to cap the landfill.

“I thought that trash was paid for, guys?” Lenz asked.

Ultimately, Paul Vogelheim favored a SPET approach, saying he didn’t believe civic leaders “earned the right to ask for another penny of general sales tax given the problems we are having.” PJH

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