This newsletter has three foci:
- Ecosystem Stewardship
- Fireworks-cum-Government Funding
The vision of the Town of Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan is “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
As I wrote about in my last e-newsletter, to address this vision the Town of Jackson is proposing to establish a new position: Ecosystem Stewardship Administrator.
Regardless of where you live, will you please show your support for this position – and by extension, the Comp Plan’s Vision – by signing a petition?
Will you also please consider donating to provide the position with additional programming funds? Even a few dollars will mean a lot, and thanks to support from generous donors, every donation of <=$100 will be matched dollar-for dollar.
On May 12, I hosted a “22 in 21” conference focused on tourism in the greater Tetons and Yellowstone region.
All of the talks were taped, and the videos of those talks can be found by CLICKING HERE.
In my time in Jackson Hole, I’ve come to appreciate that the start of each season is heralded by something distinctive:
- Autumn is marked by the first turning of the leaves.
- Winter is marked by the first snow sticking to the valley floor.
- Spring is marked by the blooming of daffodils.
- And now, apparently, early summer is marked by me being asked to consider resigning from the town council.
To the best of my knowledge, in Jackson’s history no other town councilor or county commissioner has been asked to resign. This year’s request makes it two years in a row for me. I suppose it’s a distinction, but if so it’s one which evokes Groucho Marx’s line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member…
The request was provoked by my writing a letter to the Teton Board of Realtors (TBoR), in which explained why I opposed their request for $12,000 from the town and county governments to help pay for their 4th of July fireworks presentation. This letter, and the TBoR’s response, landed me on the front page of this week’s Jackson Hole News&Guide, an article you can find by CLICKING HERE.
Since then, a number of people have asked to see the letter, which in turn triggered me putting together this newsletter. Please scroll down to find a copy of the letter.
My letter created a minor kerfuffle, provoking two letters to the Town Council from local real estate agents (these were cited in the newspaper article). One letter was from the head of TBoR (to read it, please CLICK HERE) The other was from from another real estate professional, and it was the one suggesting I resign: “If being an elected leader stresses you as much as you regularly indicate, perhaps you should consider resigning for someone more cut-out for teamwork” (to read it, please CLICK HERE).
And no, I’m not going to resign this time either.
Before the body of the letter, I offer a few paragraphs about what I view to be the larger issue raised by “Fireworks-gate,” namely how Jackson Hole needs to deeply examine what role it wants local government to play and, in turn, how that role should be funded.
- Fireworks-gate and Government Funding
- Letter to the Teton Board of Realtors
- A Few Figures
- Putting Things in Perspective
- For Your Consideration
As always, thanks so much for your interest and support.
Fireworks-gate and Government Funding
The proximate cause of Fireworks-gate was the request by the Teton Board of Realtors (TBoR) that the Town of Jackson and Teton County governments contribute $12,000 toward the $26,500 cost of staging the annual 4th of July fireworks show.
The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became with the request, ultimately leading me to write a lengthy letter to TBoR expressing my concerns. (See below)
Underlying Fireworks-gate, however, is a much larger issue, namely what role local government should play in our community, and how that role should be funded.
In the past, I have referred to this issue as both the “Champagne taste on a beer budget” dilemma and the “21st century community with a 20th century operating system” conundrum. Regardless of the name, the essence of the problem is this.
As Jackson Hole grows and evolves, it is becoming wealthier and more sophisticated. As this occurs, both residents and visitors expect increasingly higher levels of service from local government. Which, of course, costs more money.
Unfortunately, though, the way local government is funded is stuck in the mid-20th century, when Wyoming created its current method of funding local government.
Today, both the demand for services and nature of the economy are very different than they were 50 years ago. Yet because the government funding mechanism remains basically unchanged, in Teton County we rely on sales taxes to provide over 50% of local government’s general revenue.
What does this mean?
At the broadest level, we have no clear understanding of Jackson Hole’s entire economy because a huge swath of it – including recreational activities and professional services – simply isn’t measured.
Of the activities that are measured, though, four predominate: taxable sales, real estate sales, wage income, and investment income. Yet of these, only taxable sales produces revenue for local government, and it accounts for just 16% of the four categories’ total. (Figure 1).
This dramatic imbalance places a tremendous – and tremendously unfair – burden on the industries that produce our taxable sales: retail, restaurants, hotels, construction, car sales, and the catch-all of “all other.”
It also creates an interesting situation in that, for many wealthy new residents, a key attractor leading them to Jackson Hole is the high level of services provided by local government. But when real estate sales and investment income – the economic activities most closely associated with that new wealth – don’t contribute even a penny to paying for those services, it creates what I refer to in the TBoR letter as a Little Red Hen issue.
If real estate sales, wage income, and investment income were all taxed at the same 6% level as a cup of coffee, in 2020 the state of Wyoming and Teton County’s local governments would have taken in an additional $580 million in tax revenues. Which, of course, would have gone a long way towards offsetting Wyoming’s decline in coal and other hydrocarbon revenues.
Even a portion of that would have provided Teton County and the Town of Jackson the steady revenue stream we need to meaningfully address our most pressing issues, including affordable housing and transportation. And those arising from our nation’s-leading income inequality. And the growing threats to our ecosystem’s health. And the many other challenges resulting from the influx of wealth into the greater Jackson Hole region.
Until the funding of local government is more closely tied to the realities of the local economy, though, local government will be able to do little more – at least at a meaningful level – than provide the core services the current funding mechanism was set up to support.
In the 1960s it might have been enough to provide great core services such as water, sewer, and police. Today, more is expected. What is not available, however, is the money necessary to meet those expectations. That disconnect – and not $12,000 worth of fireworks – is the real issue at hand.
Now that it’s raised, I hope we as a community will choose to face this issue. Whether we do, though, isn’t clear. Neither is how – or even whether – we’ll choose to respond. If Fireworks-gate is any indicator, though, the conversation will not be lacking in, well, fireworks.
Letter to the Teton Board of Realtors
Teton Board of Realtors
P.O. Box 3736
Jackson, WY 83001
Dear members of the board,
I love fireworks, and I love the 4th of July. As a result, I’m grateful to TBoR for taking over sponsorship of the community’s annual 4th of July fireworks.
That noted, I’m flabbergasted you would ask the town and county to help you pay for those fireworks. As a result, I write to let you know I will oppose the Teton Board of Realtors’ $4,000 request to the Town of Jackson to support your 2021 4th of July fireworks display. I will also urge my colleagues – both town councilors and county commissioners – to vote against giving TBoR any money for this purpose.
The rest of this letter explains my rationale, and describes steps I urge you to take.
A Few Figures
The foundation of my astonishment is how successful your industry has been, and how that success contrasts with the challenges facing so many in our community. This is especially true of the many social services agencies which, like you, are asking local government for funding.
In 2020, the combined general revenues of Teton County and the Town of Jackson totaled $64.4 million.
In contrast, Jackson Hole’s real estate industry’s commissions totaled $147.3 million – 225% more than the revenues of the town and county combined. (To estimate revenues, I took the industry-standard 6% commission rate and multiplied it by the Hole Report’s figure that, in 2020, local real estate sales totaled a record-setting $2.455 billion.)
What I don’t understand is why, after a record-setting year, you need local government to support/subsidize your industry.
Direct support of state and local government
This morning, I purchased a cup of coffee for $2.00. I paid an additional 12 cents in sales tax, all of which will support state and local government.
I mention this because that 12 cents – those 12 lousy cents – will provide infinitely more support to state and local government than the $0.00 in tax revenue generated by 2020’s $2.5 billion in real estate sales. In that context – in context of the fact that real estate sales provide absolutely no direct support to local government – I cannot wrap my mind around TBoR asking local government for financial support.
Two related points. Quoting from a solicitation I recently received from a local real estate firm: “We broke through record high pricing levels last year, and we predict 2021 will follow the same trajectory.”
Record prices may benefit the real estate industry, but they also create a number of problems for our community and region. Yet while local government is often asked to address those problems, it must do so using revenues unrelated to that “record high pricing.”
By extension, no revenue related to that “record high pricing” is available to support your request for fireworks funding. Instead, if we are to help you we must find money not from real estate sales, but from the sources of revenue we do have (primarily from the $1.5 billion in local sales that can be taxed).
Leaving me further flummoxed is that you make this request despite the facts that: a) TBoR has never endorsed or otherwise supported any of Representative Andy Schwartz’s repeated efforts to enact a real estate transfer tax; and b) year in and year out, Wyoming’s strongest and most effective voice against such a tax has been the state’s real estate industry.
Added all together, and there’s a whiff of The Little Red Hen in all of this – the local real estate industry is eager to eat $12,000 worth of publicly-made “bread,” but not eager to help make it. Even more troubling is that your industry is eager to eat that “bread” while simultaneously working to prevent taxes being levied on real estate sales. It seems you want it both ways, and that does not sit well with me.
According to your website, you levy $1,220/member in annual dues. This year, had you chosen to levy an extra $25 per person – just another 2% – you could have raised more than the $12,000 you are asking from the town and county combined to help underwrite the TBoR-branded fireworks display.
Similarly, you could have saved $12,000 by tightening your belt by 2%. Or raised it by levying a supplemental $25 fee on your 500+ members, which I understand your by-laws allow you to do at any time, for any reason. Yet you chose instead to seek government support… Baffling.
Putting Things in Perspective
Given all this, here’s how I’m seeing things.
Rather than ask your members to pay an extra $25 each to put on the fireworks show, you asked the town and county for $12,000. This $12,000 equals 0.008% of the commissions your industry earned last year, and is infinitely greater than the revenue those sales generated to support the services you, your clients, and the entire community receive daily from state and local government.
Most striking of all, $12,000 is more than we’re being asked for by Cultivate Ability. Or Immigrant Hope. Or Voices JH. Or Yellowstone Clean Cities Coalition. All of which do incredibly important work for our community, and none of which has its own revenue source, much less one as lucrative as yours.
A revenue source so lucrative, in fact, that if Jackson Hole’s real estate industry donated just 2.0% of the commissions it earned in 2020, it could pay for the entire $2.9 million being requested of the Town of Jackson and Teton County combined by 21 local social services agencies:
- Childrens Learning Center
- Climb Wyoming
- Community Entry Service
- Community Safety Network
- Cultivate Ability
- DW/Arts for All
- Energy Conservation Works
- Hole Food Rescue
- Immigrant Hope
- JH Childrens Musesum
- JH Community Counseling
- JH Historical Society
- JH Public Art
- Senior Center
- Teton County Historic Preservation Board
- Teton Literacy
- Teton Youth & Family Services
- Voices JH
- Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities
Instead, you want the town and county to give you $12,000 for an event you’ll take credit for, but don’t want to fully pay for. $12,000 that, if used differently, could provide additional support for any of the organizations listed above, or augment other services provided to the community by local government.
As I say, flabbergasting.
For Your Consideration
So what to do? Here are four steps I hope you and your members will consider taking.
First, withdraw your request for funding from the town and county.
Second, launch a fundraising campaign wherein TBoR and the local real estate industry raises $53,000, which you in turn donate to the five organizations that asked the town and county for about the same amount as you did:
- Climb Wyoming – $15,000
- Cultivate Ability – $10,000
- Immigrant Hope – $10,000
- Voices JH – $10,000
- Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities – $8,000
Combined, this $53,000 would equal 0.04% of your industry’s 2020 total commissions of $147 million. And infinitely more than your industry’s $2.5 billion in sales directly contributed to state and local government.
Third, create an on-going, industry-wide program of making significant donations to support the community’s non-profits.
My particular hope? That Jackson Hole’s real estate industry would donate 1% – just 1% – of its annual gross commission revenue to our local non-profits. That kind of money – nearly $1.5 million in 2020 – would make a meaningful difference in helping those organizations, particularly the ones on the front lines of dealing with the consequences of our “record high pricing levels.”
Finally, in the strongest terms I urge TBoR and every one of its members to endorse, and then vigorously work to support, the passage of a real estate transfer tax, one that generates significant funding for local government.
In closing, and to repeat myself, I love fireworks, love the 4th of July, and am deeply grateful to TBoR and the broader real estate community for stepping up to run the annual fireworks program. I am also proud to count a number of Realtors among my friends and colleagues.
All that noted, when I consider how well the local real estate community is doing, the problems its success is creating for the community, and the many other funding requests being considered by local government, I cannot justify supporting your request.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Very truly yours