THE BUZZ: One Step Forward, Two Back

By on February 2, 2016

Budge gets moved while Housing Authority remains a concept.

Budge landslide

Jackson, WY – How fitting to be writing this Buzz on Groundhog Day. Like the movie that never ends and always begins the same, members of the board of county commissioners and town council continue to wake to another day’s promise of the same old, only to hit the snooze button over and over. At Monday’s joint information meeting, electeds put the cart before the horse while circling the wagons, yet again, and were eventually frightened by their own shadow back to winter hibernation.

The agenda held promise. The joint boards were to adopt a resolution that would place on the November ballot a sales tax hike to pay for solutions to the valley’s housing and transportation issues. What they didn’t like was the inclusion of Budge slide in the mix. All agree, to varying degrees, the slow motion ooze is a priority. But some likened the slough to a wrecking rider leached onto a worthwhile cause the community seems to have an appetite for addressing.

Mayor Sara Flitner immediately acknowledged the poison pill at the JIM when she opened the meeting proposing to shelve the afternoon’s first itinerary item.

“It makes no sense to pass the 6th penny apart from having a discussion on the Community Priority Fund,” Flitner said. “I’m moving to take the tax talk off the agenda.”

Everyone was immediately confused.

Some, like Don Frank, were nearly dumbfounded.

“I’m a little bit surprised, but not flabbergasted and falling out of my seat,” Frank admitted.

The idea of pulling Budge from the general fund penny was hatched at the council’s all-day retreat last Thursday, so it was the commissioners who were most blindsided.

BCC chair Barb Allen wanted to know who died and left Flitner queen. “I don’t think it’s your purview to take it off,” she said to the mayor.

County attorney Keith Gingery explained that joint meetings were traditionally run in a shared manner with county and town chairs alternating every six months. What Flitner perhaps meant to say, was she didn’t like the mitigation of Budge muddying the CPF, and it was probably better suited to a SPET initiative.

Moving mountains

Jim Stanford led the charge to pawn off Budge on SPET. He sees two advantages. One, the extra penny of special purpose excise tax is set to vanish faster than a Jackson Walgreens. By August, the money promised to the last round of SPET beneficiaries will be all paid out. If another round of SPET items is not approved by then, taxes will be automatically lowered by a cent.

Two, SPET funds would become available quicker than general sales tax, which has to be rerouted to Cheyenne where it’s carefully folded, spindled and mutilated before being parsed back out to counties and municipalities.

Stanford, Paul Vogelheim, and others have seen SPET work and work well to fund community enhancements beyond the scope of normal government care and duty.

Mark Newcomb said an Act of God like the one that struck down the nation’s largest pharmaceutical retailer is exactly what SPET was designed to cover.

“Budge Drive sits squarely outside the Community Priorities Fund,” Newcomb claimed. “Budge is squarely in the camp of what government is for—to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. It’s perfectly appropriate to put it on an August SPET ballot.”

All were in accord, though Frank wanted his passion for the mud slither to be felt.

“We all know we have a looming slow emergency along the busiest thoroughfare in the state of Wyoming. We know we have dwindling funding from the state. We know we have escalating costs to the community. Those are not disputable,” Frank said. “The notion of pulling Budge out takes me short because I don’t think that slide’s going away.”

With a vote to move Budge to SPET looking like a landslide, the only question remaining for electeds was, “What kind of money are we talking about?”

Town public works director Larry Pardee explained how property values on Budge have plummeted, insurance rates for homeowners were outrageous, and talks with Walgreens execs have been “complicated.”

Then he threw out some numbers: $2,880,000 spent by the town to date, a million dollar grant coming from the state, $4.2M pledged so far. The total cost for a fix on Budge would be around $11.6 million, Pardee estimated. And work wouldn’t even begin until March 2017 at the earliest.

Walgreens originally wanted to take their building and leave but town attorney Audrey Cohen Davis brokered a deal that promises cooperation from the drug chain, but little money so far.

Pardee also painted a depressing state of affairs on the butte.

“We floated the idea to [Budge Drive homeowners and business owners]: Would they be willing to participate in the solution and contribute money? They’ve had huge losses and are struggling to understand why they are being asked to contribute even more. Some said they feel they’ve been abandoned and [hung] out on their own.”

Heather Ewing has become the unofficial spokesperson for Budge homeowners. She’s had about all of the nightmare she can handle.

“I have been involved since the slide happened in April 2014. This is becoming a long and drawn out process. There have been injuries and impacts to multiple folks,” she said. “I encourage us all to dig in and do a neighborly good deed. This is a valley problem. Things need to start happening now.”

More than a few affected by the slide still want to find fault with someone. Lawsuits are pending. Pardee urged those involved to stop playing the blame game and get on board with a solution.

Elected officials voted unanimously to put Budge on a SPET ballot next summer, with a dollar amount to be determined.

Identifying an authority figure

All civic leaders had to do next was create a new housing authority from the ashes of The Grove. The much-maligned project has put the current Housing Authority squarely in the crosshairs of some electeds. A new HA would be jointly managed by town and county leaders in the hovering kind of way the Fair board got a taste of last summer.

Once again, elected officials found their surrey out in front of the team when trying to assemble something that looked like a Housing Authority. We can’t fund a department that has no leader, some of the politicians say. We can’t attract a decent applicant when there’s no money to pay him or her and nothing for them to do, counters the other side.

Others still, believe organizing any kind of housing authority should wait on Ruth Ann Petroff’s bill this month that would alter state statute to allow a regional organization to be guided by a joint board-appointed committee. But Gingery assured the 10 they could start getting their ducks in a row now, either way.

Smokey Rhea questioned the legality of the HA taking on debt and holding assets. Gingery assured her it was copasetic. Stanford wanted to know why the Authority was currently a county entity when most of the future affordable housing is being targeted in town.

“I begged and pleaded with [the county] when we established the Housing Authority that this was something they might want in town,” Gingery said.

Bob Lenz was all for putting the discussion off for a month. “The world isn’t going to come to an end,” he said. “And there is no money to spend anyway.”

Lenz also pointed out that Whistler manages to oversee 200,000 units with two people. That sounded a lot better to him than the HA’s FY2016 budget, which was $800k before the expected $180k salary for a new director.

The town voted unanimously to continue any talk of organizing a housing authority. Commissioners, however, wanted to move forward until Gingery informed them nothing would move forward without the town on board. Allen said she was voting to establish a housing authority whether the town came with or not.

The BCC voted in favor of creating a new, restructured Housing Authority without a director, a clearly defined organizational chart, or a dedicated revenue stream. Newcomb and Rhea were opposed. PJH

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