It feels as though we’ve entered the eye of the COVID-19 hurricane.
When the initial blow struck, we responded aggressively to protect public health.
Now, while the medical community performs heroic feats, the majority of us wait. To see if the public health measures work. To see when we might go back to work. To see how the economy will respond when it emerges from its medically-induced coma. To see what the “new normal” is, and just how abnormal it will be.
While we wait, I’ve been thinking about what COVID-19 might do to Jackson Hole, and what kind of community we might be once we emerge. One result of this pondering is this e-newsletter, which features two requests and a bit of analysis.
One request has two parts: for you to fill out a survey I’ve created, and for you to ask others to do the same. Please complete it regardless of where you live.
The other request is for you to share your thoughts about an issue facing Jackson’s Town Council.
The analysis involves trying to get a sense of where Jackson Hole’s economy might be heading.
One final note.
I’m gratified to hear that several readers have forwarded my newsletter onto their friends. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been an easy way for those folks to subscribe. To address that problem, please find a link below for those who want to become new subscribers.
As always, thank you for your interest and support. And please, stay healthy.
Wishing you all the best,
The Contents of This Newsletter
This newsletter sandwiches a piece of analysis between two requests.
The first request has two parts: for you to fill out a survey, and for you to ask others to do the same. (CLICK HERE if you want to jump to the survey immediately.)
The second request asks for your thoughts about an issue facing Jackson’s Town Council.
The analysis looks at what airline enplanements and Help Wanted ads might tell us about where Jackson Hole’s economy is heading.
- Requests 1a and 1b: A Survey on Our Future
- Jackson Hole’s Economy: Early Indicators
- Request 2: A Political Pickle
Finally, for those looking for more information about COVID-19 in Teton County, there are two great on-line resources:
- jhcovid.com is a clearinghouse of information about everything COVID-related in Jackson Hole, including resources for those needing help.
- The Teton County Emergency Management COVID Response Overview offers a dashboard of the latest statistics about how the disease is affecting our community.
Requests 1a and 1b: A Survey on Our Future
Regardless of where you live, please follow this link and fill out my survey about where Jackson Hole’s economy is heading SURVEY LIN
Please share this link with as many people as you can, urging them to complete the survey. I ask because the more people who complete the survey, the better the chances its results will be useful.
The survey closes this Tuesday, April 14
Two weeks ago, I finalized a model projecting where Jackson Hole’s economy is heading.
As with any model, though, its results can be only as good as its inputs. And the simple truth is that, individually, none of us really knows where our economy might be heading.
There is, however, evidence suggesting that taking the average of a large group of guesses can be an effective way of estimating an unknown future. On the chance it might answer our collective “What will COVID-19 do to us?” question, I developed a survey asking respondents to guess where Jackson Hole’s economy might be heading. The result is the survey linked above and again here:
To kick off the effort, I wrote an Op-Ed for the April 8 edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide. Click here to read it: News&Guide Guest Shot
Once the survey is complete, I’ll plug the results into the model and share them with readers of this newsletter, plus everyone else who completes the survey.
The basic survey should take about 5 minutes to complete. The second, more-detailed portion will take another 5 minutes.
If you have any questions, comments, or the like, I’m happy to answer them.
Thank you for both completing the survey and encouraging others to do the same.
Jackson Hole’s Economy: Early Indicators
One of the most discombobulating aspects of our COVID-19 world is how rapidly things are changing. For example, eight weeks ago the S&P 500 recorded its all-time high. Today, it’s 18% lower.
Even more striking is that just four weeks ago, nearly 17 million more Americans had jobs than have them today. To put that in context, only four states – California, Texas, Florida, and New York – have populations greater than 17 million. And 17 million is more than the population of 14 least-populous states combined. How can that be?
At a local level, most indicators of Jackson Hole’s economy lag so far behind daily events that they’re basically useless in the current situation. For instance, last week the Wyoming Department of Revenue released its April sales tax report. It detailed revenue Cheyenne received in March, which in turn reflected Teton County’s February sales. As a result, we won’t know anything about March’s actual sales for another several weeks, anything about April’s sales until early June, and so on.
What to do? Happily, with a bit of creativity we can at least get a sense of what’s happening to our economy. Two indicators strike me as particularly significant: commercial airline enplanements at the Jackson Hole Airport, and Help Wanted ads in the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Regarding enplanements, for several years they’ve been growing like wildfire: 42% between February 2016 and February 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 9.1%.
Last month, though, they fell 45%. And that drop occurred even though our ski areas were open roughly half the month. (Graph 1)
Because there’s a rough correlation between enplanements and Teton County’s taxable sales, such a large drop is ominous indeed.
Similarly worrying is what’s happened to the column inches of Help Wanted classified ads in the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Four weeks ago, the March 11, 2020 edition of the News&Guide featured 698 column inches of Help Wanted classified ads. This was the biggest Help Wanted section since the end of May, 2019, and 3% higher than in the same week in 2019.
This past week’s paper – 2020’s 14th edition – had 116 column inches of Help Wanted ads, an 83% drop in just four weeks. It was also an 86% drop from the same week in 2019. (Graph 2)
Equally striking is how, in just four weeks, the mix of the paper’s Help Wanted ads changed.
As Graph 3 shows, in the March 11 News&Guide the single biggest category of Help Wanted ads was in the tourism-related industries of lodging, restaurants, and retail. Four weeks later, the biggest categories involved jobs either generating revenue – sales – or keeping things alive: healthcare, landscaping, and maintenance.
What about tourism? As Graph 2 also suggests, because this is the time of year when businesses begin gearing up for summer, the past few papers should have featured a big jump in tourism-related Help Wanted ads. Yet thanks to the uncertainty COVID-19 has produced, the column inches of such ads have fallen 99% in the last four weeks.
Combined, the plunging enplanement counts and free-falling Help Wanted data suggest Jackson Hole is in for a rough spring, and perhaps a rough summer as well. I say this because the airport numbers suggest fewer tourists will be heading our way, and the Help Wanted numbers suggest a diminished capacity to serve those who do come.
The latter point is especially important because among Jackson Hole’s many paradoxes, we have both the nation’s highest per-capita income and an astonishingly large number of low-paying tourism jobs. How large? Here’s how Teton County’s job counts ranked nationally in 2018 in the major tourism-related industries:
- Arts, entertainment, and recreation
- Percentage of Teton County’s total wage-based jobs: 8%
- Rank of that percentage among America’s 3,113 counties: 55 (top 2%)
- Accommodation and food services
- Percentage of Teton County’s total wage-based jobs: 35%
- Rank of that percentage among America’s 3,113 counties: 6 (top 0.2%)
- The two categories combined
- Percentage of Teton County’s total wage-based jobs: 43%
- Rank of that percentage among America’s 3,113 counties: 14 (top 0.4%)
When these figures are combined with the Help Wanted data, three points jump out.
First, at a time when getting accurate, reliable news is arguably more important than it has ever been, everyone who cares about Jackson Hole needs to be concerned about the sharp decline in the advertising that supports local journalism.
Second, the profound drop in Help Wanted ads in general, and tourism-related ads in particular, suggests Jackson Hole’s employers are taking a wait-and-see approach to hiring for this summer. In turn, this suggests they’re far-from-sanguine about the next several months.
Third, even if something extraordinary happens and the economy completely rebounds by, say, the end of May, it’s not clear whether local businesses will be able to handle a full complement of tourists. By this I mean that if employers normally need a couple of months of lead time to fully staff their businesses, and if they feel they shouldn’t start that hiring process until early summer, it’s not clear how they’ll be able to get fully staffed before summer’s end.
Either way, these early indicator data suggest Jackson Hole’s merchants – and by extension the entire community – are in for a difficult stretch ahead. And that conclusion brings me no joy whatsoever.
Request 2: A Political Pickle
Each member of the Jackson Town Council currently earns $25,000 plus health insurance; the mayor makes $30,000. These wages haven’t changed since 2005.
At our retreat in January, the council discussed raising the salaries of future councils to keep up with inflation (the US Consumer Price Index has risen 31% since 2005). If enacted, this increase would raise future councilors’ salary by $7,750, to total $32,750/year. Future mayors would get a raise of $9,300 per year, to $39,300.
Under Wyoming law, no governmental body can raise its own salary. As a result, any pay raise the current town council approves will apply only to future councils. By extension, if a raise is enacted, only those folks elected this November – the mayor and two of the four councilor seats are up this year – will benefit; Councilman Arne Jorgensen and I will not. (When our terms are up in 2023, whoever fills our seats would get the higher amount.)
For a number of reasons, the council thought this was a good idea. These included:
- As noted above, the council’s salaries haven’t changed since 2005.
- The proposed raise would simply catch up with inflation.
- Increasing numbers of people have told us they feel they can’t afford to run for council. This group disproportionately includes younger people, people of color, and women.
- If done with any integrity, being a town councilor is at least a 1/2 time job.
- Do the math, and at best that works out to $25/hour, a calculation that doesn’t take into account the fact that no elected official simply leaves the job behind when they go home. And at least for me, since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, being a town councilman has become essentially a full-time job.
Three other thoughts.
First, if the pay raise were to take effect, the initial additional cost to the town will be $24,800/year, for neither Arne nor I would get the raise. Once our positions were eligible for the higher pay, the total additional cost to the town would be $40,300/year, or roughly 0.2% of the town’s current annual expenditures.
Second, serving in local government is an honor and privilege, and it rewards me daily in ways I never imagined. That noted, much is asked of anyone who serves, and in many cases that “much” means earning less from their full-time job. The salary electeds receive helps offset some of those lost wages, but for many officials it doesn’t fully cover the losses.
Finally, from a mechanics perspective, as with any change in the Jackson Municipal Code, the proposed pay raise requires three separate votes, or “readings.” We held the first reading on April 6, and the final one is scheduled for May 4. We timed it that way to ensure that prospective candidates for November’s ballot could make fully-informed decisions before the May 29 filing deadline.
Why bring this up? Because the proposed pay raise has created a kerfuffle, and I would like your help thinking it through.
Here’s the situation. While many local government-related issues get lost in the shuffle, everyone understands a pay raise. And to put it mildly, we town councilors have gotten pilloried for supporting this one.
Understandably so, for the timing-cum-optics are terrible. As a result, the basic message we’ve heard from the public – and not just town residents – is something like: “The world is falling apart, the local economy is cratering, and just when it seems things can’t get any worse, you stupid, greedy, out-of-touch politicians are picking this moment to feather your own nest.”
Is that how you see it?
On the issue’s merits, I think the pay raise is the right thing to do. Particularly persuasive to me is the argument that if we don’t raise the pay, it will make it increasingly difficult for a representative swath of our community to run for office.
On the issue’s optics, though, the timing couldn’t be worse, so the decision ends up stinking to high heaven. And that’s concerning because if voters lose their faith in government, it will make it even harder to address the many difficult decisions we’ll soon be facing.
On an absolute basis, is this the most important policy issue on the town’s plate? Not by a country mile. But it is an important political issue, and the reality of elected office is that policy and politics don’t always converge. This is an example of the two diverging, and I’d appreciate your thoughts on the matter.