As I write this, it’s two weeks to Election Day.
Two years ago, I found running for office to be an extraordinary experience, one of great extremes. On any given day – heck, in any given hour – my emotions went from exhilarated to exhausted, soaring to stressed, manic to morose, giddy to ground-down.
Two qualities in particular stood out.
First, the closer it got to Election Day, the more I wanted to win. That desire grew exponentially, because the more time and energy I put into campaigning, the more I wanted that effort to pay off.
Especially motivating was the prospect of losing a close race. It would be bad enough to lose, but to lose by a handful of votes would have led to weeks and months and years of self-recrimination: “If only I’d done this. If only I’d not done that. If only…”
Second, tipping my hat to William Goldman (see below), here’s the basic fact of any competitive campaign: Nobody knows anything.
In my case, I was running for one of two seats, and in both the primary and the pre-election local barbershop poll, I came in third. Rationally, I knew that neither of those results meant anything for the general election. But what if they actually did…?
And that was the thing – as with everything else I read or heard or felt about my race, there was really no way of knowing what to believe.
As a result, the closer it got to Election Day came, the harder it became to view things rationally. All I knew for certain was that, as my desire to win grew, so too did my susceptibility to any suggestion that might result in a few more votes. “You say you know a bunch of people waiting to throw their support to the first candidate brave enough to support left-handed aardvarks? Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Thanks so much for letting me know – I’ll look into that right away.”
By Election Day, I was barely sleeping – too much nervous energy. And even after exercising hard that morning, I spent most of that wet and raw election day standing by roadsides waving a “Schechter for Town Council” sign – I couldn’t sit still, and I certainly didn’t want to lose because I failed to do everything I could to persuade that last undecided voter.
I mention all this because knowing I wouldn’t have to run, I was very much looking forward to this year’s election season. God has a sense of humor, though, so even though I’m not up for election, for two separate reasons I’ve found myself deeply immersed in this year’s festivities.
One is my fervent desire to have local voters support a proposed one percent tax increase. As I discuss below, if it passes the Town of Jackson will be able to continue providing our residents, visitors, and businesses with a high level of services, as well as support our community’s much-in-need social services organizations. If not, my colleagues and I will have some very difficult choices to make when preparing future budgets.
The other stems from the fact that half of the six candidates for Jackson’s mayor and town council have made the newspaper recently for reasons relating to their personal behavior. One of these incidents involved me, namely that one current candidate asked me to resign on the chance I would be replaced by a younger female of color. Because this request came in mid-July, and because I said “no,” I’d assumed the story would fade way. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and this non-story was the lead article in the September 30 Jackson Hole News&Guide.
I raise this not because I’m worried about myself, but because it seems likely to me that, collectively, these stories about individual candidates will degrade the community’s faith in local government. And that worries me because, ultimately, government can be only as effective as the faith constituents have in it. As a result, I’m worried that voters’ concerns about candidates’ behaviors will also affect their views of the town’s government – that they’ll say “a pox on all of you” rather than distinguish between campaigning and governing.
To me, though, there is a clear and important difference between campaigning and governing, and that leads to the third item in this newsletter: The proposal I introduced on October 13 to develop an ecosystem stewardship mechanism within local government.
The Vision Statement of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan reads: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.” Yet since its 2012 adoption, neither the town nor county has devoted any significant resources – whether financial or human – to ecosystem stewardship. With luck, the unanimously-supported motion I made a week ago will prove to be the first step in changing that dynamic.
- The Case for Increasing Our Sales Tax by 1%
- Advancing Ecosystem Stewardship
As always, thanks so much for your interest and support. Please stay healthy, and please be sure to vote!
PS: William Goldman was an author and a screenwriter, perhaps best known for writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My favorite work of his was The Princess Bride. If you want to know more about his “Nobody knows anything” quote, here are two links:
PPS: Like a zillion other people, I’m angsting about the presidential race. In a quest to productively channel my angst, in late August I created a Google Sheets spreadsheet recording FiveThirtyEight.com’s daily probabilities of how that race will go, both nationally and for every state. If you’d like to share the angst by having access to the spreadsheet, please e-mail me and I’ll link you to it.
The Case for Increasing Our Sales Tax by 1%
I wrote the following Op-Ed for the October 21, 2020 edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Please support the proposed one percent increase in Teton County’s sales tax rate.
Although I write only for myself, I think it’s important for voters to know how one Jackson Town Councilor sees the issue.
I support the general penny tax for two simple reasons.
First, COVID-19 has blown a hole in the Town of Jackson’s budget.
Because of Wyoming state law, sales taxes provide 70-75 percent of the town’s general revenues. This makes the town more dependent on sales taxes than Wyoming is on coal, gas, and oil combined, and we know how well that’s working out…
COVID-19 has hammered Teton County’s taxable sales, and with them the town’s finances. For fiscal year 2021, which started July 1, the town budgeted a 50% drop in sales taxes. Fortunately things haven’t been that bad, but even the best case has FY21 revenues dropping $2.5 million or more.
The town is addressing its projected FY21 $4.8 million revenue shortfall by drawing on reserves and sharply cutting spending (e.g. freezing new hires and capital expenditures). This is a one-off solution, though – next year we’ll have to raise significant new revenues and/or make sharp cuts in services.
Second, because of COVID-19, the town’s days of Champagne tastes and beer budgets are numbered.
Currently the Town of Jackson provides residents, visitors, and businesses a very high level of services: first responders (cops and fire/EMS), street plowing and maintenance, water and sewer, and the like.
As Jackson has grown and changed, so too has the range and quality of town services. The cost of providing those services has grown faster than revenues, and until now increased productivity has plugged that gap. Unfortunately, COVID-19-related revenue shortfalls are so great that productivity increases alone will no longer work.
COVID-19 will also soon take its toll on the town’s support for the community’s human services agencies. In FY21, the town cut spending in every area except support for human services. Going forward, this won’t be possible.
So where does this leave us? Fortunately, this year the town’s reserves allowed us to forestall dramatic service reductions. Those reserves are now near legal minimums, though, so next year we’ll have to raise new revenues and/or significantly cut services.
In practice, we have three choices.
Add a general penny of sales tax
This raises the most money – an estimated $6 million for the town, enough to maintain our current service levels. The tax would expire in four years unless voters re-authorize it, and tourists would pay 50-55% of the total
Levy a brand-new, town-specific property tax of 8 mills
This would raise around $3 million. The Town Council can levy this tax without voter approval, and Jackson property owners would pay 100% of the total.
Cut the number and quality of services the town provides and supports
This year, the Town of Jackson will spend $1.9 million to support services provided by non-town entities (e.g., the community’s 15 human services providers). This is a lot of money, but represents just 40 percent of our anticipated $4.8 million revenue shortfall. Making matters worse is that, starting in FY22, Wyoming will likely make huge cuts in health and human services programs.
So there you have it – the three less-than-ideal choices facing the town government. For me, the obvious solution is raising the sales tax by one penny: It raises the most money (especially from tourists); it will allow the town to continue offering a high level of services; and it will allow the town to put far more into helping our community’s neediest residents than those folks will pay in additional taxes.
Two final thoughts.
First, please don’t let opponents scare you by arguing that raising the sales tax from 6 to 7 cents is a “17% increase.” That math is right, but so is this: After taxes are added, the price of a $1 cup of coffee will go from $1.06 to $1.07, or 0.9%.
Second, recent stories about several local candidates may be eroding your faith in local government. I hope not, for I fervently believe the Town of Jackson is worthy of your trust. As a result, I ask that you please not confuse politics with governance, individuals with the institution.
If you don’t like something about a candidate, then don’t support him or her – that’s the essence of democracy. But when considering the proposed sales tax increase, please weigh your feelings about any candidate against the services local government provides.
Does the town do a good job plowing your streets? Keeping your water running and sewage treated? Are you confident cops or firefighters or an ambulance will show up when you need them? Do you support the town funding local human services agencies? Regardless of who is in office, these are the services that will be affected – one way or the other – by the general penny of sales tax.
Advancing Ecosystem Stewardship
At the October 13, 2020 Joint Information Meeting (JIM) of the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Commission, I introduced the following motion. It passed unanimously: 5-0 by the Town Council, and 4-0 by the County Commission (one commissioner had left the meeting before I introduced my motion).
In support of Common Value One: Ecosystem Stewardship, I move to direct staff to create an overview of options of how the town and county – whether separately or jointly – can develop the resources needed to address the Comp Plan’s ecosystem conservation vision and goals.
This overview will evaluate options ranging from relying on an informal community advisory system to hiring one or more staff positions focused on ecosystem stewardship to creating an Ecosystem Stewardship Department and/or Commission. The evaluation of each option will provide a sense of specific responsibilities and positions, costs, logistics, capacity, feasibility, and other relevant information, including the potential for securing philanthropic funds to help catalyze the effort.
Staff will report back to the elected officials at the December JIM meeting, so that decisions can be made in time for consideration during the Fiscal Year 2022 budgeting process.
As noted in the introduction, the Vision of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan begins: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…” These six words are the plan’s raison d’etre; its remaining fifteen words are the rationale for preserving and protecting the ecosystem: “…in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
Two things are striking about this Vision Statement.
One is that the way an organization allocates its financial and human resources is the clearest indication of its values. Yet since the Plan was adopted in 2012, neither the town nor county has specifically directed any resources towards preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem. No staffing. Little direct money. Essentially nothing toward what the community claims is its vision.
What makes this vacuum especially striking is that, in contrast, between them the Town of Jackson and Teton County have over 20 volunteer boards, commissions, and the like. These include a number of boards – Examiners, Fair, Historic Preservation, Library, Museum, Parks & Recreation, Pathways, Recycling, and Travel & Tourism – a Design Review Committee, a Public Art Task Force, and two Planning Commissions. Not one board, committee, task force, or commission, though, focused on preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem.
The other striking thing is that, with perhaps one exception, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago in England, no region or nation on Earth has developed a successful industrial or post-industrial economy without fundamentally compromising the health of its ecosystem.
The exception is the Tetons region, which has both the nation’s highest per capita income and lies at the heart of an arguably still-intact ecosystem.
The upshot? The Comp Plan envisions Jackson Hole doing something no place on Earth has been able to accomplish, yet we’re putting essentially no resources into that effort.
Dumb luck may work to our benefit, as does the fact that 97 percent of Teton County is public land. But my strong conviction is that, if we are going to buck 250 years of precedent, we need to take active and meaningful steps in pursuit of our vision. With luck, the motion I introduced last week will ultimately prove to be the first step in that direction.