This newsletter discusses two topics sharing one theme: community character.
Topic 1: Increasing Teton County’s sales tax from 6¢ to 7¢
If you are a Teton County, Wyoming voter, my fervent plea is that you PLEASE VOTE YES for the ballot measure authorizing raising our sales tax from 6 cent to 7 cents.
Its essence is this:
- Sales taxes account for ~70% of the Town of Jackson’s general fund revenues
- Wyoming’s system for funding local government was established around 50 years ago, and hasn’t really changed since. Jackson certainly has, though…
- Before COVID-19 hit, taxable sales – and by extension the town’s revenues – were not growing fast enough to allow us to address all of the challenges facing our 21st century community.
- Since COVID-19 hit, taxable sales have sharply dropped, and with them the town’s revenues. This threatens our ability to continue providing even basic services at their current levels.
- If the sales tax increase passes…
- In the short run, the town should be able to maintain its current range and quality of services (e.g., emergency services, plowing, and infrastructure upkeep)
- In the long run, the town will be able to be more responsive to our 21st century challenges (e.g., supporting human services, environmental stewardship, and affordable housing)
- If the sales tax increase fails…
- In the short run, the town will almost certainly have to cut the number and/or quality of its services
- In the long run, we will be less able to address our 21st century challenges
- Increasing the sales tax by a penny is the best tool available to the community
- It raises the most money
- Tourists pay at least half of all sales taxes.
- 100% of every other revenue-generation tool the town has at its disposal is paid for by residents and business owners
Topic 2: Snow King
Last Monday, the Jackson Town Council approved leases that will allow the Snow King Ski Area to build a gondola from the base of the mountain to its summit.
As I wrote about in my last newsletter, the Town of Jackson is a 21st century community with a 20th century operating system. The resulting disconnect is big and growing rapidly.
The multi-decade Snow King leases drove home this reality, which in turn forced me to consider what Snow King – and by extension all of Jackson Hole – will look like 10, 20, 30 and more years from now. From that perspective, I am very worried about maintaining our community’s character.
The amount of money flowing into Jackson Hole is rapidly accelerating; ditto the pace of change. As this happens, local government is being asked to address a growing number of increasingly complex problems and opportunities. To state the obvious, it’s hard to do this with a funding stream designed to address the problems and opportunities of the 1970s.
In turn, this raises a related question: If local government doesn’t have the tools to address the things residents most care about, then who does? I’ll explore this and related questions in future newsletters. In the meantime, thanks so much, stay healthy, and all the best. As always, it is an honor to serve you.
Snow King Soliloquy
On Monday, September 21, the Jackson Town Council approved a lease allowing the Snow King Ski Area to use town land at the bottom of the hill.
The vote was 4-1, and marked two signal events.
First, with the lease secured, Snow King will build a gondola to replace the decades-old Summit double chair that currently runs from Phil Baux Park to the top of the mountain.
Second, after over four years of back-and-forth, the town and Snow King have addressed most of our major issues about the ski area’s future. There are still details to be worked out, and Snow King still has to get operating approval from the Bridger-Teton National Forest. But as far as the Town of Jackson is concerned, the heavy lifting is essentially over.
To me, the most important decision about Snow King’s future was made before I took office in January 2019. This was the decision that, as Snow King emerged from its recession-induced financial mess, the ski area would be owned and operated by a private, for-profit entity. From that decision flowed a number of others, all based on two simple realities:
- a for-profit organization has to make a profit; and
- a for-profit organization does not have to make its financial information public.
Had the decision been made for a non-profit or community-run organization to operate the ski area, the final agreement no doubt would have been different– in some ways the community might have gotten more; in others less. But that path was not taken.
Switching gears slightly, one of the most interesting aspects of pretty much any political office is that it requires elected officials councilors to make decisions on a wide range of subjects, far more than any one person could ever master. For me, one consequence is that I tend to offer detailed comment only when I feel I can make a meaningful contribution. The details of the Snow King lease was not one of those subjects, so I reserved most of my comments to the end.
Just before voting, I made the following remarks, addressing the larger, long-term environmental and community character issues which, to me, are ultimately what really matter about Snow King’s future:
I will vote for this.
I wish I felt ecstatic about this vote. Sadly, I do not. Instead I primarily feel a sense of weariness, a feeling I suspect is true for everyone involved in this process: electeds, staff, Snow King, and the public.
Weariness is not driving my “yes” vote, though. Instead, I’m voting yes because I feel this agreement is about the best compromise the two sides could reach – much more in either direction, and the deal could have easily fallen apart. And to my mind, that would have been a far worse outcome than the one I’m about to vote for.
A goodly part of my dis-ease about this vote is the result how Snow King’s proposal reflects many of my deepest concerns about our community’s future. For many years, now, Jackson Hole has increasingly attracted those who seem eager to exploit the community, taking from it far more than they give back. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this process, attracting people eager to take advantage of all our region has to offer without any sense of how to give back, or even that they should give back.
To that end, I have two fundamental concerns about Snow King. Both are long-term.
The first is access.
If Snow King is to remain the Town Hill – if it’s going to remain central to the community’s identity and character – it will need to continue to provide access to our residents and visitors that is as easy, affordable, and unencumbered as possible.
I have faith that the current ownership and management team will do this. I am concerned about the long-term, though, particularly if Snow King sells to another owner or gets into financial trouble. There are built-in safeguards to keep access available, including the SKRMA fee and requiring that the lifts operate 49 hours/week. But history is replete with businesses with the best intentions not able to keep their commitments, and if that happens to Snow King I worry what will happen to easy, affordable, and relatively unencumbered access to the both the Town Hill and the Snow King Center.
The second is environmental protection.
The first six words of the Jackson/Teton County Comp Plan are its essence: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…” The final 15 words are the rationale for preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem: “…in order to ensure a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations.”
Snow King’s current management has indicated to me that they intend to do all they can to manage Snow King in a way that will protect the area’s ecosystem. These include steps such as closing sensitive wildlife areas during critical periods, and taking active steps to keep mountain bikers from lift-enabled access to backcountry areas.
But again, what happens in the future, especially if there is new ownership and/or Snow King gets into financial trouble?
To protect against such problems, the council and community must look to our friends at the Forest Service to put in the restrictions that they, as professionals, feel are necessary to protect our region’s environment. As I know they will, I urge the Forest Service to carefully consider the long-term health of the ecosystem in shaping their operating agreement with Snow King.
One final comment.
For all the difficulty and acrimony of the past few years, I firmly believe that both Snow King and the Town of Jackson are united in a shared desire of having Snow King continue to be The Town Hill for decades to come. We are coming at this shared goal with different priorities, of course, and these have been the source of much of the friction between the two sides.
But my fervent hope is that Snow King succeeds. That it continues to be The Town Hill in every way. And that it succeeds not just financially, but in being a cornerstone of our community’s character, and a model steward of our region’s ecosystem.