THE BUZZ 2: Four’s a Crowd

By on February 15, 2017

Senior center, Children’s Learning Center, CWC and boat ramp stalled in SPET discussion.

The new senior center is a $35 million dollar project. St. John’s is hoping to secure half the funds from SPET. (Photo: St. John’s Hospital Foundation)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – County commissioners and town councilors failed to reach a decision Monday with what Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb called the “outside four” SPET ballot items. The foursome includes a new St. John’s senior center, a Jackson campus for Central Wyoming College, a new Children’s Learning Center and the construction of a Wilson boat ramp.

Of the 13 proposals in question, eight definitively made it onto the ballot. Most were directly related to housing and transportation, which Newcomb and Mayor Pete Muldoon identified as community priorities.

Electeds agreed, for example, to keep funding for the Redmond Hall affordable rentals, but they did not decide on an amount. Funding for the project would otherwise come from Housing Authority money acquired through the sale of Cheney Lane ($1.95M) and funding from the town ($2.1M).

The other winning SPETS include Fire Station No. 1 and 3 improvements ($6.8M); fleet facility maintenance and START Bus storage ($15.3M); START Bus replacement ($6.5M); affordable housing/rental units ($5M); Town of Jackson sidewalk improvements ($1.5M); Rec Center repairs and renovations ($2.35M) and the S. Highway 89 Underpass ($1.5M).

Parking lot limbo

Meanwhile, the outside four, Newcomb said, are projects “that are not strictly for housing and transportation, yet they clearly play a crucial role in sustaining a vibrant community.” These items remain “in the parking lot,”—they were not removed from the ballot, nor did they advance. They will undergo one more round of discussion at a final meeting next week.

Newcomb explained that the eight items on the ballot already amount to roughly $50 million. Historically it has taken a full election cycle—four years—to accrue that amount in taxes. Adding the additional proposals brings the total amount up to almost $80 million.

There is no statutory limit to SPET dollars, but traditionally projects have operated under a four-year budget and time frame. Accommodating for the extra $30 million, Newcomb worries, could dilute funds and attention from other projects that arise in the future.

The most heavily debated item on the docket at Monday’s joint meeting was also the most expensive: $17 million for St. John’s Medical Center—which it will match—for the construction of a new senior Living Center. It’s one of the biggest asks in SPET history.

The new Living Center facility would include the addition of a memory center for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Hospital CEO Paul Beaupré argues there is “no question” that such a center is invaluable to many of their prospective residents. Without it, senior citizens are forced to either leave the valley for proper care, or sacrifice that care for the sake of staying close to home.

“We’re talking to families who are struggling with the hard decision of keeping their family in Jackson, or moving them,” he said.

It would also add private bedrooms and bathrooms, though the number of beds would not increase. Currently, most of the resident rooms are semi-private.

“There are very fine seniors in the Living Center today that toil their entire lives to make Jackson the place they know and love. We cannot dignify them by having a place for them to call their own?”

Those in full support of the proposal see the Living Center as an essential contribution to the community. Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson said that while she’s the first to prioritize housing and transportation as community needs, “there’s also other ways we need to take care of our people … these are definitely needs, not wants.”

While all electeds voiced support of the project to some degree, they could not agree on the price tag. Commissioners Newcomb, Natalia Macker and Smokey Rhea voted in favor of leaving all $17 million on the ballot. Levinson and Councilman Don Frank were also prepared to advance the project.

All other electeds wanted to explore ways to split up the funds.

Muldoon said he wants to be consistent about funding construction for projects that are “shovel ready.”  Instead of going all-in on the $17 million, he and Councilman Jim Stanford proposed putting only as much money on this spring’s ballot as is necessary for project design and development, and revisiting construction costs during a new SPET election cycle as soon as next summer. But that requires an entirely new conversation, councilor Hailey Morton Levinson pointed out, and neither the town nor the county could make that promise on the spot.

Splitting funds between design and construction isn’t a new strategy. The library, Fire Station 1, and the Rec Center are all the results of such a division. But Levinson said that there’s no precedent, as far as she knows, for promising another election within such a short timeframe. There is no way to guarantee that it would happen.

That uncertainty, Beaupré fears, could cripple the project. “The word that scares me to death is when you say ‘assumption’ that we’re going to have another SPET earlier or in two years … we cannot entertain [less funding] with anything short of a promise that in two years we will have the opportunity to come back,” he said.

Without that guarantee, the Living Center could find itself in a perilous position. St. John’s is already underwriting $1.5 million a year for the center, Beaupré reminded electeds. A lack of funds at any juncture could put other “very vital programs” at risk.

Extreme vetting

But Muldoon and Stanford say election seasons provide that guarantee. To promise another SPET election and then go back on that promise, Muldoon said, would be bad politics. “If we partially fund anything with the expectation that we have another election in two years, we’ll have that election,” he said.

Funding for a Central Wyoming College campus in Jackson is also under dispute after a series of proposal changes left electeds questioning how ready the project really is. They will explore other (lesser) funding amounts during a meeting next week. Town and county officials will also revisit dollar amounts for employee housing units at the START building. Like the Living Center, neither of those projects was unanimously considered “shovel ready.”
Funding in any amount is still on the table for a new Childern’s Learning Center building and a Wilson boat ramp.

Councilman Don Frank supported every initiative at the full amount. “Each and every one has virtue,” he said. “We have prioritized housing, health and transportation.” It is now up to voters to decide what is important to them.

But Muldoon reminded electeds that it is their job to vet each proposal as thoroughly as possible. The public is counting on them to present complete and comprehensive initiatives.

“Parking lot” items will undergo one final round of scrutiny in a joint town and county meeting, 3 to 5 p.m. February 22. PJH

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