THE BUZZ 3: To SPET or Fret

By on April 4, 2017

Opponents are wary of the price tag while SPET supporters say this is the last hope to address community needs.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Polls are open for the SPET election, but a debate has ensued since early voting began March 23. People like Bob Culver are encouraging voters to “hold your fire” while others like, Lauren Dickey, say the ballot items are exactly what SPET is for.

Proceeding with caution

Culver is on the board of the Jackson Hole Tea Party, and is responsible for the weekly newsletter “Hole in One.” For the past three weeks his newsletters have analyzed SPET ballot items. While he never says whether someone should vote for or against any particular item, he wants voters to carefully consider the ballot before making any decisions.

“I’m trying to get people to exercise their minds a little bit,” Culver said.

Since town and county electeds approved the ballot last month, responsibility has fallen on voters to educate themselves on the merits of each project. For citizens like Culver, however, the ballot in its entirety is a hard sell.

Culver’s primary concern with this year’s SPET ballot is the dollar amount: almost $70 million dollars. “That’s six years or so of collecting taxes,” he said. “What if another emergency comes? [Electeds] are sunk.”

Indeed, the tax generates about $10 to $12 million in revenue per year. If all 11 items pass in the May 2 election, it will take approximately six years to collect enough money to fund each project. Culver worries that if an emergency strikes the town, like the Budge landslide, the town and county will have to find another way to fund repairs—likely another tax. “The only thing they could do is add something on in parallel,” Culver said.

County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim shared Culver’s concerns throughout the SPET campaign. In the final ballot vote, Vogelheim was the only elected to vote “no.”

“When the voters weighed in on the general purpose sales tax, [they demonstrated] they wanted to go back to how we’ve handled SPET in the past,” Vogelheim said. Historically, SPET projects have been limited to a three- or four-year collection span. “Then voters every two years or so would bring different projects back,” Vogelheim explained. That system, he said, allowed for flexibility, and allowed funding to adjust to shifting needs and emergencies.

“You never know what’s going to come up tomorrow,” Vogelheim said. “Needs could change. Emergencies could come up.”

Culver voted against the one percent general sales tax in November. He worried that with a general tax, there was no control over revenue spending. SPET allows for that control, he acknowledged, but he says the amount of items on the ballot has gotten out of hand.

SPET stand for “Specific Purpose Excise Tax,” but Culver calls it by another name: “Special Purpose Excise Tax.” He thinks that tax dollars should only go toward projects that are “special, extraordinary, critical…” etc. In his newsletters, he outlines five “factors” for measuring the appropriateness of SPET projects. The second is that it addresses a “critical need” that is “timely or safety related.” Many of the projects on the ballot, Culver says, don’t pass the test.

“I think [electeds] got suckered into putting stuff on the ballot that shouldn’t be part of town and county projects,” he said.

‘Our needs are increasing’

Dickey, however, says the projects are right in line with SPET goals. “It’s for doing a lot of these capital projects,” she said. The Friends of Pathways education director specifically supports projects that promote sustainable, alternative transportation, like sidewalk improvements and START bus fleet additions.

The town and county have collected SPET since 1989, and this year the county is expected to fall short on about $8 million in sales tax revenue when the tax drops back to five percent. About 56 percent of citizens—some who cited SPET as a better alternative—voted against the general purpose sales tax back in November, but community projects still need funding. For this reason, Town Councilman Jim Stanford says that SPET is more important now than ever.

“Most of these items that are going on the ballot would have been paid for under that sixth cent of general revenue,” Stanford said. But voters decided against it, and now must sleep in the bed they made.

“Our needs are increasing,” he continued. “We’re being asked to do more with the same pot of revenue, or even a decreasing pot.”

Teton County has also lost a significant amount of money in state grants, Stanford noted, and a lot of its capital projects depend on those funds. And with the lodging tax up for renewal this year, the town and county stand to lose even more tax revenue. Stanford says the town has to be willing to replace that revenue somehow.

He said town and county electeds did their best to “thoroughly vet” every project over the course of two months. The final ballot, he said, is a reflection of what town and county staff, and the community, identified as important.

“[Citizens] didn’t want less government when the roads were impassable this winter,” Stanford said. “They all wanted more services then.” Services like snow removal and the START bus, both of which stand to gain funding through SPET dollars. There are $15.33 million dollars on the line for an improved fleet maintenance and START bus storage facility.

Dickey encourages anyone who hasn’t seen the current START bus barn to check it out for themselves. “It’s incredibly inefficient,” she said.  “Busses are in a tiny little space where they barely fit, and they can only work on three at a time.”

On top of that, Teton County Public Works houses almost 300 public service vehicles—police cars, snowplows, etc. under one roof, and it’s crowded. “Realistically, we have a lot of needs as a community,” Stanford said—more than $100 million worth of needs, he estimates. So a $70 million price tag is actually pretty trim.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we’re not willing to look at this local funding option,” Stanford said.

Craig Benjamin, executive director of the JH Conservation Alliance, agrees. His organization joined the community-wide effort to pass the general sales tax in November. “It’s interesting the Tea Party is raising questions when their main concern was that the 1 percent [sales tax] wasn’t dedicated, and SPET  [dollars] are.”

Benjamin says that the beauty of SPET is how much power it gives to voters. “Everyone has a different definition of critical,” he said. He acknowledged that the ballot’s price tag is high, but “the nice thing is that voters can pick and choose what they think is important.”

Longtime Jackson local Joan Anzelmo will also carefully cast her ballot this year after some back-and-fourth with Stanford convinced her to vote at all. Anzelmo said she was concerned that the town Planning Commission approved a new hotel on Center Street. In retaliation, she voiced her concerns on Facebook and expressed that she would not vote in the May 2 SPET election.

“I didn’t see how you could ask the community to fund these projects, while at the same time continuing to make problems [like traffic and lack of affordable housing] worse,” Anzelmo told PJH. But she said that Stanford explained to her the intricacies of why the hotel passed—it’s in a commercial zoning area and actually exceeds affordable housing requirements—and she has since moderated her stance.

Still, she will heavily weigh each ballot item before voting yes or no. “They have to really earn my vote,” she said. Anzelmo says she will likely vote in favor of projects that provide affordable housing—there are three on the ballot—and will certainly vote in favor of funding for a new Living Center at St. John’s Medical Center.

For her, other projects, like additions to the START bus fleet, will require more convincing. “It’s not going to solve every traffic problem in this county,” Anzelmo said. “It’ll help, but [Teton County] is no like a regular urban center … I don’t think just throwing more money and adding more infrastructure is right if the numbers don’t add up.”

Voters have one more chance to publicly vet SPET ballot items 5 to 7:30 pm., April 19 at Teton County Library. PJH

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