Big Decisions on New Housing Authority, Budge

By on March 14, 2016

Jackson Hole, Wyoming — County commissioners and town councilors met today to make two important decisions put off at past meetings. The joint board of 10 signed off on a resolution creating a regional Housing Authority including the immediate hiring process of a new housing director position. Elected officials also agreed to place a $6 million SPET initiative on the ballot this August that will ask voters to tax themselves in order to help pay for mitigation of the Budge Slide—rebranded of late as the West Broadway Slide.

Authority always wins

Town councilors got over some initial heartburn over amended language that still didn’t reassure some of them that they would have a say in the running of a reconfigured housing authority.

“I will assume that this is simply an oversight,” councilman Don Frank began. “But right there in the very headline it does not describe this as a joint housing authority? At what point are we going to identify this as a joint department?”

County attorney Keith Gingery assured Frank it was not an oversight but rather a lexicon formality that placed the housing authority under the county in a technicality much the same way START Bus and Parks & Rec are defined as county entities but have town oversight as well. County administrator Alyssa Watkins said she had revised the language to better reflect that her counterpart at the town, Bob McLaurin, and the council he represented would be working in close cooperation in the hiring, firing and disciplinary matters of the housing authority staff.

TCHA_logo-sidebarCouncilman Bob Lenz worried local government was getting too much oversight, especially when it came to making decisions about who gets to purchase or rent a new affordable home.

“Does this mean we are going to start telling people who gets a house or rental apartment? Because I envision people here in front of [us] and in the backroom saying, ‘I want this house,’ and I bet the daughter of a politico here gets the house,” Lenz speculated. “I, for one, think it should be an autonomous housing authority. When we start down the road with compliance and other stuff down the line, whether it’s people out of compliance with their affordable housing or out of line with a VRBO, autonomous authority has great advantages. And we can finger point about all these [landbanked] properties or what went wrong at the Grove, but every piece of housing authority property has been approved by you folks at the county. You’ve approved every purchase.”

Lenz was referring to public comment offered before the vote that ranged from criticism of the authority to staunch opposition of subsidized housing in any form.

“Right off the bat I would just like to say I don’t agree with subsidized housing at all,” said Cindy Stone. “I don’t like it, and I have never seen it work. Show me where it’s worked. Vail, Whistler, Aspen. Nowhere has it been successful. We are tired of you taking our money and throwing it into a dark pit with no bottom in sight.”

Teton County Tea Party director Jeff Hymas called for electeds to force the sale of county properties that have sat undeveloped for more than a decade and to use the money to fund shovel-ready projects in town.

“I think it’s also germane to the discussion to say that hiring a housing director now is putting the cart before the horse,” Hymas said. “There needs to be some dedicated funding in place first, either through SPET or a general tax. But that decision hasn’t been made yet. I would suggest not hiring until you have the money in place or you will have an expensive guy with nothing to do. It’s hard to vote for increased spending for housing solutions when we aren’t getting the value currently that we could.”

Joe Rice, who was at the JIM to speak on behalf of slide mitigation that affects his Sidewinders Restaurant couldn’t resist the opportunity to rage against the machine until his agenda item came up.

“What bothers most people in general about subsidized housing is there are no checks and balances,” Rice said. “There are people that live in affordable housing right now that shouldn’t be in affordable housing. And I believe there are lawyers and other professionals living in affordable housing while people making $30,000 a year are who it’s intended for. And what just happened at The Grove, and the wasted money that has been spent on that project. If I ran my business that way I would be out of business. You guys are doing no different than the federal government. You continue to waste money and then ask for more.”

Councilman Jim Stanford spent most of the meeting blasting media coverage and other communication avenues that have poisoned public perception.

“I’m seeing that we have a few folks in the room and in the community concerned about a second housing authority,” Stanford complained. “It seems to me that is demonstratively false. All we are doing is dividing the current housing authority [into separate distinct roles]. We have had no discussions about creating a second housing authority. Is that right?”

Frank, too, acknowledged he had heard “a variety of dynamics” in the community that bordered on negative scolding. “It’s not healthy and it’s not helpful,” he said.

Frank also admitted he was concerned about compliance and the possibility that some affordable housing owners had worked their way out of neediness, but he wasn’t ready to back Hymas’ suggestion that the county get into a fire sale. “As far as selling off our public assets—it flies in the face of our Comp Plan goals to preserve and expand our housing stock,” he said.

Commissioner Mark Newcomb joined Lenz in preferring to be less hands on when it came to affordable housing oversight and control.

“I probably won’t go as far as councilman Lenz, but I’d like to look a little bit at a firewall. We need to protect ourselves from ourselves to some degree,” Newcomb declared. “I would like to avoid the pitfall of a group of 10 who were not elected to be experts on housing. I would like to acknowledge that the private sector can do a lot better than the $211-per-square-foot that Phase II of The Grove is going to cost. We can get fairly tangled up as a body of 10. I would caution us in getting too zealous in our self-interests and let private sector play a role.”

Mayor Sara Flitner admitted local government didn’t have all the answers yet but was ready to move for the sake of a balanced and diverse community in dire need of housing answers.

“I recognize we don’t have it all figured it out yet but we will continue that process,” Flitner said. “I’m less concerned about a few bad actors … and a lot more concerned about highly paid people like teachers and an attorney I know who can’t afford a home here. Even at a $100,000 salary, it doesn’t mean there is a place for you in this community. It’s not my intention to build our way out of this but our community needs help. That’s all I’m trying to do, and recognizing we are going to make some mistakes along the way and when we do we will certainly hear about them but hopefully learn from them.”

BCC chair Barbara Allen said it was no time to turn back now.

“We’ve created a document that we all voted on. This is a reflection of that document,” Allen said, referring to the Housing Action Plan. “We need to trust in ourselves and our staff. We are now making a choice in our community that will ensure we are able to support a vibrant and diverse community where people can afford to live and work here. We are creating a nimble government that can look to the private sector for help. Let’s look at the positives rather than the reservations.

Commissioner Smokey Rhea admitted she was no housing expert but was an expert on the people that needed housing. “The timing is right; we have to do something now,” she said.

The town council voted 4-1 to adopt a resolution that would create a dual-branched regional housing authority headed by a new housing director and a housing manager. Lenz was opposed.

The board of county commissioners also voted in favor on a 4-1 tally with Newcomb holding out.

Slip sliding away

Mayor Flitner began discussion on the Budge Slide mitigation insisting there was no attempt at rebranding the landslide now referred to by town documentation as the West Broadway Landslide. “Let’s just call it ‘the slide,’ being the ever-optimist that I am that we will only ever be talking about one and the same [of these],” she said.

Stanford began the conversation with his displeasure over misinformation leaked to the public.

“I would like to clear up the rather stubborn perception in the community that if people vote against a SPET [solution] they will not be asked to pay for the slide. Isn’t it correct to say that we are going to pay for this one way or another?”

McLaurin said, “It’s in the public’s best interest to pay for this. It threatens access to Yellowstone as well as the water supply to west Jackson. It’s still moving at about a quarter-inch a month. It’s the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. There is the real possibility of a catastrophic failure of that hillside should we get a wet spring day and an earthquake of about 5.5 to 6.”

Public comment was largely in support of doing the neighborly thing and getting public infrastructure secured. Rice, Aaron Pruzan (Rendezvous River Sports), and homeowners on the hill were ready to put the two-year nightmare behind them. At least two community members still wanted to know who they could paint a bull’s-eye on.

“Who signed off on this? A geologist? Does that person have any liability?” asked Pam Walton. “All we heard and read about in the papers was that Walgreens had to get in here super fast. This is the fastest Walgreens they ever made, supposedly. Is that true? Can somebody tell me who initially gave the go ahead?”

Stone blamed book smart engineers who think they know better than native Holers.

“From an old-timer’s point of view, we’ve all known that hill slid for years,” Stone said. “And every time a guy with a shiny new degree took a slice out of the base of it we said, ‘Oh shit.’ These educated guys come in from California and say, ‘Don’t worry, I learned this in school. Now everybody is pissed off that they are going to have to pay for it…It doesn’t matter how much lipstick you put on it, it’s still a pig.”

Stanford said if this were a sinkhole in the middle of East Hansen or a landslide on Ski Hill Road in Alta, we wouldn’t just leave it. “It’s the role of government to help when there is an emergency,” he said. “Like it or not, we annexed that property years ago and decided to build there. As to who signed off on it, there are too many people to name through the years going back 50, 60 years.

Frank blamed the slide on the seismic nature of the valley. “We live in a valley that is geologically dynamic. There may be another slide in our community,” he said. “Look, if a house is on fire, neighbors grab buckets and pour water on the fire, and figure out whose fault it is later. This landslide is a fire and we need to put it out.”

Lenz wasn’t ready to head up Budge with a bulldozer just yet. He wanted to wait on Walgreens’ commitment and proper access to private property the town would need to make reparations.

Flitner attacked the issue with her newfound mayoral diplomacy.

“If I’ve learned one thing as mayor this past year: there is not one single easy solution to any problem in [Teton County],” she said.

Both boards voted unanimously to put a $6 million SPET initiative on the August primary ballot and let voters decide if they want to foot the bill for the hill that swallowed a drug store.

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