BUZZ 2: Finalizing Funding

By on April 19, 2016

General sales tax identified as means to pay into housing and transportation coffer.

A 6th cent of general sales tax is expected to generate between $42 and $48 million for the four years it would be in effect if approved. (Photo: City of Gillette)

A 6th cent of general sales tax is expected to generate between $42 and $48 million for the four years it would be in effect if approved. (Photo: City of Gillette)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Since the beginning of the year, elected officials have been wavering between a tax structure that would best fund the valley’s housing and transportation issues. The trust was originally referred to as the Community Priorities Fund (CPF), though some officials have backed off that nomenclature after Budge slide mitigation was added, then removed, and wildlife initiatives like safe road crossings are continuously brought up.

What exactly are our community’s priorities?

Why tax?

According to polls and research, a majority of county citizens believe the availability of affordable housing, any housing, has reached yet another crisis point. Numerous members of the community are being pushed out of the area for lack of housing. Whether government can and should play a role in providing housing and alleviating the effects of growth like traffic jams, was up for some debate at the recent JIM where commissioners and councilors were poised to simple dot “I’s” and cross “T’s” on an agreed upon tax approach.

It wasn’t so simple.

“This is just a formality today,” councilman Jim Stanford assured those attending the public meeting last week.

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said, “Recognizing we’ve agreed on priorities—transportation and housing—the discussion today is more about how are we going to fund them?”

Some in the community, though, are not ready to acknowledge housing and transportation are matters government should be overly involved in.

Judd Grossman, who has at times been heavily involved in local politics, voiced his general distrust of town and county government bodies.

“Please reject this tax. Our government is not being straightforward with us,” Grossman said. “Shockingly, even if electeds stick with their spending promises this tax will actually do very little to solve our housing and traffic problems. Electeds are simply giving very expensive lip service to these issues in the name of ‘something must be done.’ If voters approve this resolution, at the end of 10 years local government will have taxed and spent over 100 million dollars through this general excise tax increase. And what will we have to show for it? At best the rate of increase of our workforce housing deficit will be reduced by 10 or 20 percent. A dramatically expanded START [Bus] system will at most handle less than 2 percent of our car trips.”

Town administrator Bob McLaurin insisted putting a CPF on the November ballot for voters to decide would not represent a tax hike.

“This is not a tax increase. This is going to keep the sales tax at 6 percent if it passes. If it doesn’t pass taxes will drop to 5 percent,” McLaurin explained. Guests and visitors will pay two-thirds of this tax. There is no sales tax on food.”

What tax?

Elected officials remained somewhat split about the best approach for generating housing and transportation funds. A SPET approach has more inherent accountability and money-tracking safe-measures built in. It is also an easier sell to the public, according to some politicians.

“SPET was introduced by John Turner. It’s had a great success in bringing to voters a disciplined way to bring projects with a cost for voters to weight in yea or nay. The vast majority have been approved,” said commissioner Paul Vogelheim. “I don’t see additional general sales tax as the appropriate way to go because of risk of failure, and we would be walking away from a historically successful SPET.”

Barbara Allen added, “I still prefer SPET. It’s more specific, measurable and accountable. The voting public gets to weigh in. our feet would be held more closely to the fire and it has a better ability to pass.”

Councilor Don Frank saw merits and pitfalls in both tax options. “SPET is imperfect. However it is a very successful way to give voters finite funding for highly specified work outcomes and that’s why we like it. But it does not give us dedicated funding. General is imperfect but it is recurring. In either case, funding is going to be voter approved or not,” he said.

Grossman isn’t buying any of it.

“The town and county have a track record of failure on these issues, including a disappointing history of waste and mismanagement,” Grossman said. “Now they are doubling down on these past failures with no coherent solutions on the table. If this resolution passes, at the end of 10 years they will have taxed and spent over 100 million dollars, and what will we have to show for it? A widening housing gap, and a bus system that handles less than 2 percent of our trips.”

Former county commissioner Hank Phibbs says he is in favor of a general sales tax to fund CPF but the support comes with a warning.

“All of you understand the limitations we as a community face. We can’t build our way out of a housing problem,” Phibbs cautioned. “Retaining the character of neighborhoods makes the choices limited. We need better transit to our neighboring valleys. We can’t simply upzone to build a lot of housing. That’s not realistic.”

Bob Lenz worries about the “blank check” aspect of a general sales tax which would be pledged to housing and transportation, but in reality could be used any way government sees fit.

“I’ve been in favor of SPET from the beginning. [General sales tax funds are] going to be challenged every budget season,” Lenz said. “There will be people from social services, Parks and Rec, Fire/Ems, Pathways, saying, ‘Out of that five million we deserve this much.’ Believing future commissions and councils down the line are going to honor it doesn’t seem to be very good thinking. It’s foolish people that think we are going to give $48 million to government carte blanch and they will spend it wisely.”

The joint board voted to put a general sales tax penny dedicated for CPF on the November ballot. Commissioners Allen and Vogelheim opposed on a 3-2 BCC vote. Lenz held out in the council’s 4-1 vote. PJH

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