3 county candidates say no to tax hikes
Fuller bucks the field with support for real estate levy.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 4, 2012
Faced with sluggish tax collections and shaky outside funding, only one candidate running for the Teton County Board of Commissioners is willing to look at raising taxes.
Democratic challenger Claire Fuller said this week that county officials should reconsider a real estate transfer tax and higher building fees if they’re faced with more potential budget cuts. Any increases would be coupled with cuts to services, she said.
“If tax collections fail to improve in the near future, I would pursue a dual approach of cutting costs and exploring new sources of revenue, with a greater emphasis on looking for new revenue,” she said Monday in an email.
The approach would allow county officials to take advantage of the valley’s tourist economy and real estate market without burdening residents, she said.
Fuller’s answer was part of a questionnaire sent to the four candidates running for two seats on the county commission. They were asked how they would approach the county’s budget next year if tax collections didn’t improve. They were asked specifically if they would favor deeper cuts to the budget or would look for more revenue, such as new taxes or higher fees.
Fuller, who helps run her family’s ranch at the base of Teton Pass, said the tax should apply only to houses that exceed a certain value.
She wouldn’t tax houses occupied by people who work in the county.
A ‘strong and progressive’ tax
“This could be a very strong and progressive tax,” she said.
Fuller also would look to department heads to find additional cuts. Budget reductions should include a discussion with residents about the services they want, she said.
Other candidates said the county shouldn’t consider new taxes while the economy has yet to fully recover. They lean toward cutting services or making the county run more efficiently.
Fuller’s opponents are fellow Democrat and sitting Jackson Town Councilor Melissa Turley and Republicans Barbara Allen, a real estate agent and town planning commissioner, and incumbent Commissioner Paul Perry, who owns Canvas Unlimited.
Perry said county officials are working with the Wyoming County Commissioners Association to get a larger share of sales tax revenue from the state.
“People are hesitant and opposed to increased or new taxes, and I am in full agreement against new taxes,” Perry said in an email. “If we have to deal with continued declines in revenue, then I believe it would be prudent to evaluate our levels of service that the county provides and see what could be achieved by adjusting those services.”
Turley wants ‘efficiency audit’
Turley would push for “an efficiency audit” to determine where the county could tighten its budget for everything from fuel to staffing to the services it provides.
An audit also would unearth “opportunities for operational efficiencies, such as consolidation of service with the town of Jackson,” she said by email.
Allen said it’s the wrong time to be talking about new or increased taxes. Sales tax collections were up last year, and county officials ended the year with a budget surplus, she said.
“I do not support precipitous discussions about raising taxes when working people in our community are struggling to pay their monthly bills,” she said in an email.
County officials should focus more on maintaining a “streamlined government” and figuring how best to use the extra money from the last fiscal year, Allen said.
She suggested replacing the money commissioners used from their reserve accounts to balance their current budget or granting a pay increase to county employees.
The county ended its fiscal year in June with a surplus of about $2.5 million, though that number could change, County Treasurer Donna Baur said.
The county relies heavily on sales and property taxes. Over the past year, collections were up about 10 percent, which doesn’t include the larger percentage of collections the county gets as a result of the latest U.S. census.
State and federal funding also could change. For example, the federal government pays the county for public lands on which it doesn’t pay property taxes.
The county received $2 million this year through the program and expects similar funding next year. But the future of the program has been questioned repeatedly by federal officials.
Sitting commissioners said they balanced their current budget by pulling money from reserve accounts and probably wouldn’t be able to do that again if tax collections don’t improve. They’ve already drawn down several reserve accounts.
Even if tax collections recover, commissioners face maintenance expenditures deferred over the last few budget cycles. They also are considering pay increases, which they’ve deferred for several years.