THE BUZZ 2: Priority Pass

By on June 14, 2016

Housing and transportation dominate tax-driven fund to the exclusion of conservation.

As electeds work to address the valley's housing emergency, is another community priority being overlooked? (Photo: JH Wildlife Foundation)

As electeds work to address the valley’s housing emergency, is another community priority being overlooked? (Photo: JH Wildlife Foundation)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Local leaders established a Community Priorities Fund (CPF), and in doing so missed a chance to identify the valley’s supposed ongoing No. 1 priority: conservation. Time and again, when polled, residents of Teton County have answered in unison as to their goals for preserving wildlife, habitat and open space. In fact, it might be the only thing this diverse community can agree on.

Housing is the headline grabbing, hot button issue of the day. Transportation is inextricably linked to workforce housing. The struggles have reached such a fevered pitch in recent weeks and months that electeds signed off on a resolution that creates a treasury for housing and transportation solutions—the kitty funded by a general sales tax increase of one penny.

At least one elected official recognized a missed opportunity.

“I’ve made it known I am strongly in favor of conservation, and I am deeply concerned if we don’t include at least a placeholder in our Community Priorities Fund we will lose out on at least one-off opportunities to contribute significantly to what the community has clearly stated over and over again is a priority,” commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “This is a [fund] meant for all three community priorities, but I understand where the community is coming from in providing funds in an area where the private sector has fallen significantly short: in transportation and housing. But opportunities for conservation only come along once. You miss it, and it’s gone.”

Newcomb abstained from the vote last week, making it an official 8-0 in favor of the resolution. He received lip service from fellow commissioner Smokey Rhea who said she would be riding herd on her peers.

“We clearly state in our Comp Plan that we have three community priorities, and my fear is we will lose track of the conservation if we don’t have it identified,” Rhea said. “I’m hearing some [electeds] want to make sure that doesn’t go away. I know they’ll be three of us who will make sure that you follow through on that. It’s not what I want but I support it.”

Rhea considers councilman Jim Stanford as the third amigo for conservation with Newcomb and herself. Stanford felt transportation planning inherently included protections for wildlife.

“I do agree with Mark [Newcomb], especially in having a Community Priorities Fund that mirrors what we’ve expressed as a community in the Comprehensive Plan,” Stanford admitted. “To me, good transportation planning involves taking into account wildlife—taking into consideration safe travel. To me, there are other options available to us going forward and I remain committed to those. I look forward to other opportunities for broader community goals outlined in the Comprehensive Plan.”

Community input was repeatedly solicited during the eight-year process toward finishing the 2012 Comprehensive Plan. As a stated desire or goal, conservation issues like the protection of wildlife and habitat, connectivity of habitat, and preservation of open space and the valley’s natural resources topped every list. Every time.

The comprehensive plan calls for the establishment of a “dedicated funding source for conservation easements and other measures that protect the wildlife habitat, habitat connections, and scenery valued by the community.” To date, none has been designated.

Councilman Don Frank is the only other elected official to address the importance of wildlife at the latest joint meeting. He, too, felt wildlife was being cared for through the purchase of more buses.

“My experience is whenever we work on transportation solutions we are working toward being better conservation stewards. We are getting cars off the road. We’re expanding our rational use of roads and designing roads to try to reduce congestion. Every time we do a construction project of any kind anywhere in the valley of any significance there’s typically an ESA [Environmental Site Assessment). We’ve got specialists and consultants who work on conservation concerns during the entire process of LDR revisions in the town and county,” Frank said. “So I don’t think there is a lack of mindshare. But at this moment in time we all agree to dedicate these funds to housing and transportation as our community priorities.”

Left out

Conservation groups were somewhat dismayed with the news that no funding for safeguarding natural resources would be included in the tax hike.

Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance executive director Craig Benjamin is still hopeful though. “While it’s disappointing our elected representatives chose not to include conservation and protecting wildlife in the Community Priorities Fund, investments in housing affordable to people who work here and transportation choices will benefit our community,” he said, “and we look forward to our elected representatives providing Teton County voters with the opportunity to support investments in conservation and protecting wildlife in the coming years.”

Jon Mobeck, executive director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, pointed out the divisiveness of many current issues facing valley residents. He thinks conservation is a perfect rallying point to help bring the community together.

“As a community, we’ve clearly said and established over time wildlife as a priority. I understand you wouldn’t want to appear as if you are opposed to housing or transportation. The community has pressures. But we need to continue to look for opportunities to walk the talk,” Mobeck said. “Wildlife is a nonpartisan issue. We’ve seen over and over Republicans and Democrats have gotten together, in the West, especially. It brings different factions and diverse groups together. Things are so polarized right now. Extremism seems to be the more palatable option. And how many times has it been said the biggest difference between us and Aspen or Vail is our abundance of wildlife? Why wouldn’t you support that?”

Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife program coordinator Chris Colligan said, “Our highest values in this community are integral to conservation, wildlife, and open space. We are encouraged by the level of discussion around wildlife crossings, but in the end, disappointed that [conservation] didn’t make it in there.”

Valid arguments

One argument against creating an exchequer for conservation is the “distortion” created by government involvement in private sector easements, for example. BCC chair Barbara Allen is particularly concerned with the idea that the private sector could game the system if large landholders choose to hold off for public funds instead of taking a smaller tax write-off when considering conservation easements.

The CPF would consist of a 50-50 split of the revenue going to housing and transportation. Newcomb added that he was not aware of any discussions about adding conservation to the mix to, perhaps, sweeten the deal in November when voters are tasked with deciding on the tax increase.

If passed in November, revenue from the added penny tax will begin coming to the town and county in April 2017. The tax is expected to generate between $10 million and $12 million, annually. If passed, it would remain in place for four years and be placed again on a ballot in 2020. If passed again, a resolution could be adopted that would “hide” the tax—meaning it would simply roll over every four years unless a petition to remove it was launched.

Tax revenues would be split in a 55-45 ratio to the county and town, respectively. Leaders from both the town and county have pledged to keep the money in an account reservoir dedicated exclusively to housing and transportation efforts, including any interest accrued by the monies. PJH

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