THE BUZZ: Winds of Change

By on January 19, 2016

Citizens are heard on commercial, but tax tango irks some.

160120BuzzJackson, WY – The joint town and county meeting (JIM) on January 12 promised to be groundbreaking. Indeed, it did not disappoint. Wearied from talking a good game, when it came to doing something about the shortage of affordable housing and transportation concerns in the valley, elected officials had still gridlocked on identifying a potential revenue source.

Civic leaders were also tasked that Tuesday with making a final decision on nonresidential development potential, especially commercial, and whether to freeze it at the existing latent 5.1 million square feet in the county (1.9 million SF in town). County leadership has been on board with holding to 1994 Comp Plan guidelines capping nonresidential where it is today. Town officials, however, have been less willing to ice commercial development, believing it could stifle growth and urban renewal.

Targeting a tax

A previous vote last month deadlocked town and county leaders regarding which tax should be used to fund a Community Priority Fund (CPF). That fund would provide money for the valley’s housing crisis, one that had mysteriously picked up a hitchhiker in START Bus for the ride. Now, at the JIM, town administrator Bob McLaurin also crammed Budge slide into the picture.

“Budge is an unfunded liability, a public safety issue,” McLaurin warned. “There can speculation on whose fault it was and whose fault it wasn’t, meanwhile it’s still moving at an eighth of an inch a month. If that ruptures the public utilities water tank, water for the entire west part of Jackson will drain in a matter of hours and you’ll be left with a 15 to 20 foot hole in the middle of Broadway.”

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said later he was caught off guard by the last minute inclusion of the slide, which, for him, just stirred muddy waters even more.

“That surprised me a bit. I didn’t feel good about that one,” Vogelheim said. “Instead of figuring out how we were going to split housing and transportation – 50-50 or however – we were suddenly talking now about Budge slide and whether [the county] is really even prepared to share equally with the town on that. I don’t know. But it’s another reason to keep it with SPET. Then voters would have weighed in on that argument and had a chance to parse out what they are willing to tax themselves for or not.”

McLaurin suggested SPET would be a good place to beg money from citizens for Budge – $3.4 million has been raised to date but complete mitigation is expected to run toward the $20 million mark. He also coaxed the joint board toward adopting the general fund penny for the CPF that was suddenly becoming the CPF&B.

Politicos took their positions. Not much had changed since December’s vote. Mayor Sara Flitner asked for a motion. That’s when Vogelheim made a fatal mistake. He put forward the SPET notion and virtually guaranteed its demise.

Given that the joint boards had not come to an agreement before when they voted down the use of a general tax last month, and given that public pressure had boiled to a point where it was highly unlikely electeds would get out of the Town Hall chambers alive without coming up with something, anything – someone was going to have to change their stripes.

Flip-flopping on issues is normally a cardinal sin in the political realm. But if elected leaders were offered the opportunity to go on record with their personal inclination in a failed vote, and then still be able to heroically set aside those convictions in the interest of appearing to take to heart public hardship and outcry over housing and traffic, well, that was too irresistible to pass up. So whatever measure went first was doomed after it failed.

“In retrospect, yeah, I see that now. Later that night I was kicking myself,” Vogelheim said. “But I honestly didn’t think we would or could come back to a reconsideration [of the failed December vote] to use general.”

Vogelheim’s motion to use SPET went nowhere at the JIM. When an attempt to try general revenue was proposed, Vogelheim cried no fair. “We already had this vote at our last meeting, is this a motion to reconsider?”

Flitner appeared ready for the challenge and immediately summoned county attorney Erin Weisman to weigh in. Actually, Weisman seemed to summon herself to the dais, suddenly appearing to assure Vogelheim the vote was legit.

“You have to go to law school if you are going to argue with that,” Flitner told Vogelheim after Weisman’s testimony.

“I talked to both Sara and legal afterword and apparently there was a discussion last Friday that wasn’t shared with the electeds,” Vogelheim said. “It’s not over. I don’t think it’s done. It’s going to come back on a vote to pass this resolution. I’ve talked to more than a couple of people who said we are placing a bet here that is all or nothing. And if this fails at the polls you will have ultraconservatives like the Tea Party excited about the prospect of reducing our taxes.”

The general revenue tax passed the BCC 3-2, with Allen and Vogelheim opposed. It flew by the town council with Flitner flipping and Frank being coerced to side with A or B instead of C. Lenz stood fast to SPET saying, “Down the line this is going to get precarious; it’s going to get messy.”

Allen sided with Vogelheim believing a general revenue tax allows government to collect and spend how it wishes, sidestepping the specificity of a SPET initiative which would presumably allow voters the chance to target their penny toward housing, transportation or Budge.

Deep-freezing commercial

Headed into the JIM, the gathering’s second agenda item appeared to be a slam-dunk. County commissioners had long since come into alignment with the impression that nonresidential development was unneeded. A latent 5.1 million square feet of commercial potential was still undeveloped in the town and county since the 1994 Comp Plan was adopted.

Town reps, in contrast, favored the notion that commercial, especially lodging, was a necessary component in fighting stagnation in the town’s crucial District 2 zone and would encourage more urban renewal projects. After public pushback, councilmembers buckled at a recent meeting when they voted unanimously to present a united front to the joint meeting about standing pat with the town’s current 1.9 million square feet of commercial potential on the books.

Staff had also recommended freezing commercial.

Chamber president and CEO Jeff Golightly opened the public comment period. “The Chamber is not interested in growth for growth’s sake, but I also don’t think we should just stick to the ‘94 plan,” he said. “The community’s will is for a revitalization of downtown. Commercial development would be punished here at a time when other sectors, like institutional, are currently driving growth more.”

Alliance head Craig Benjamin disagrees. “Institutional build out follows commercial and lodging development,” he said. “When we create more jobs and more people move here, then they would like to have more things like churches and nonprofits. It’s a trailing indicator, not a primary driver.”

After Golightly, public comment swung heavily in favor of building housing. Emotional pleas bordering on tears followed one after another, urging the board to stop building stuff that exacerbated tight housing conditions and to please give them a chance to make Jackson home.

Just when it seemed the argument was exhausted and Flitner on the verge of closing the comment period, former mayor Mark Barron slowly walked to the front of the room for the final say.

“I find this disappointing,” he began. “We talk about commercial development and small business operators like they’ve become some kind of undesirable thing. We worked for five years on a master plan resisting the urge to fill the public with fear because of build out numbers that in practical terms would never reach their potential because we have an engaged public and a responsible elected board to keep them in check. Take a good look at ‘town as heart,’ because we are about to kill it, strangle it. There has never been any discussion about building workforce housing outside the town of Jackson. Ask yourselves why that might be. Town is going to be the institutional and nonprofit center of Teton County.”

The electeds’ discussion included a “perplexed” Frank, who didn’t understand why ballooning institutional growth wasn’t part of the equation.

“I don’t know how or why the debate has been framed to make commercial the great and lurking hazard when it’s actually institutional growth that is the major and unchallengeable driver to housing needs,” he said.

Flitner agreed the situation was complex and institutional growth played some role, but said she was ultimately comfortable with 1994 numbers that provided “plenty of room for commercial growth.”

Allen, who reminded the room she was on the planning commission for many years and is a working real estate agent, said other incentives or disincentives like parking requirements could be explored to help foster more commercial vibrancy, especially in town.

“This is not meant to be disrespectful of anyone’s property rights, but just adding more commercial to add commercial doesn’t make any sense,” Allen argued.

As the vote passed unanimously, Barron stormed out of the room in noticeable disgust, using the back door.

Benjamin called the vote a victory for the people. “It’s fantastic our elected representatives listened to the people and voted to house our middle class over more Marriotts,” he said. PJH

SIDEBAR:

Electeds on funding Community Priorities

Paul Vogelheim: “SPET has worked effectively over the years. It would force additional discussion about details and accountability for the voters.”

Mark Newcomb: “General revenue is the best way to make sure we are addressing all the community’s needs, including wildlife habitat. The public will still have substantial control on how this money is spent.”

Natalia Macker: “I support general revenue. It gives the public a chance to fund priorities. I’m also open to an interim SPET measure as a separate conversation.”

Smokey Rhea: “I’ve never waivered from wanting it to be general [revenue]. We’ve said all along we wanted a new, dedicated revenue source. SPET is not new. It’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Jim Stanford: “I favor general revenue. What we’ve seen is we don’t have the money to pay for the operational costs and these capital improvements. A general penny is more strategic and less haphazard.”

Barbara Allen: “If I went to the bank with no business plan I wouldn’t get funding. We don’t even have a Housing Authority structure or staff in place. General is just giving government more money when they’ve proven they can’t be accountable with it. SPET is the most effective tool to reach our goal at this time.”

Don Frank: “I wonder why we are talking only about two choices instead of three. I lean toward the third option [half-and-half blend of general and SPET].”

Bob Lenz: “I lean toward SPET. You can’t earmark general at all. Once voted in, electeds can do whatever they want with that money. SPET is more specific and the public can follow it.”

Sara Flitner: “I continue to favor SPET. It’s strategic and not philosophical. I don’t believe any of us wants to give government a blank check. SPET is going to be easier for the community to digest and vote for.”


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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