Vote on SPET propositions no-brainers
By Jonathan Schechter, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 31, 2012
The specific purpose excise tax is a 1 percent sales tax used to fund voter-authorized capital projects. On Tuesday, voters will consider three proposals:
• Proposition No. 1: $13.5 million for the town of Jackson to buy the Bridger-Teton National Forest headquarters property on North Cache Drive and to fund an extension of Mercill Avenue to improve access to that property.
• Proposition No. 2: $4.3 million to build a bicycle and pedestrian pathway from the five-way intersection in town to the Stilson Ranch parking lot at the intersection of Highways 22 and 390.
• Proposition No. 3: $14.5 million to properly cap and close the county’s old landfill in Horse-thief Canyon and to reconfigure the trash transfer station to allow more efficient use of the space for trash hauling, recycling and composting.
Combined, these projects total $32.3 million. If all three are approved, it will take around three years to pay for them. As a result, regardless of how many of the projects are approved, voters can expect to see more SPET proposals on the ballot two years from now.
I’m going to vote for all three. One reason applies to all three propositions. I also have reasons specific to each project.
The reason that applies to all three is basic economics: For every dollar these projects cost, you and I will pay only 60 cents. Add them all together and residents will pay $19.4 million for $32.3 million in benefits, with our visitors picking up the additional $12.5 million. Can’t beat that deal.
I came by this 60/40 resident/tourist split through a four-step process involving some pretty simple math.
First, for every year back to 2000, I took the month with the lowest taxable sales figure. After correcting for the lag between when a taxable sale is made and when the state reports it, in most years this low-figure month was April or November. Even with the vagaries of the state’s monthly tax reports, having either April or November be the slowest month each year passes the smell test.
Second, I assumed the following: Since tourism is dead in April and November, almost all taxable sales made during those months are to residents. And while there are some tourists in town, their purchases likely balance out the purchases not made by residents absent during mud season.
Third, I multiplied each year’s monthly low figure by 12 to develop a rough proxy for residents’ annual purchases.
Finally, I divided the “residents’ annual purchases” figure into total taxable sales for that year.
Over the past 12 years, residents accounted for between 49 and 68 percent of Teton County’s annual total taxable sales. Over the entire 12 years, the average was an even 60 percent.
Is the methodology perfect? Of course not, but I can’t think of any better. And whether or not the precise split is 60/40, the important point is that the actual figure is in that ballpark. The even larger point is that roughly 40 percent of any SPET project is going to be paid for by someone who isn’t you or me. That makes the SPET a no-brainer.
My specific reasons for supporting Propositions No. 2 and 3 have similar no-brainer qualities.
I support the bike path from town to Stilson because I’ve had close calls on Broadway and Highway 22. Throw in our growing bicycle-tourism economy, and I can’t figure out a meaningful argument against Proposition No. 2.
Capping the landfill is equally obvious. Simply put, since we are legally obliged to fix the old landfill, the only question is how we’ll pay for the project.
One option is raising property taxes. While some of that would be paid by second home owners, most of this option’s burden would fall on residents.
Heck of a whack
A second option is paying for it out of general revenues, either directly or through bond payments. Because roughly half of local government’s general revenues are from sales taxes, tourists would contribute some of these funds. If we take this route, though, we’ll ultimately have $14.5 million less for local services — a heck of a whack.
The third alternative is for residents to pay 60 percent through the SPET, let tourists pick up the rest, and leave general government revenues untouched.
As with Proposition No. 2, I can’t figure out a meaningful argument against Proposition No. 3.
Proposition No. 1 — the U.S. Forest Service property — is more complicated, but supporting it is still pretty much a no-brainer. To understand why, let me start with some context.
As I write this, the eastern seaboard is getting walloped by Hurricane Sandy. To me, the storm sends three messages.
First, we ignore global warming at our peril.
Second, because the nation has neglected its infrastructure for decades and because global warming will be placing tremendous new demands on all aspects of our infrastructure, America’s future prosperity depends on massive new infrastructure investments.
Third, when major environment-related problems hit — be they droughts, storms, fires or what have you — there is no substitute for the federal government, well-funded and working well.
All three of Hurricane Sandy’s messages are heresy to the current Republican catechism, a gospel that has shaped the federal budget over a couple of decades. Drill down a level, and during budget battles the Forest Service usually loses because it has no political clout: Environmentalists are perhaps the nation’s most impotent special interest group. Unlike the national parks, national forests have no impassioned advocacy groups. And most of the national forests are located in rural states represented by Republicans who embrace their party’s shrink-the-government philosophy. The net result has been the slow strangulation of the Forest Service’s budget: While it’s roughly the same size as it was 20 years ago, the amount allocated to firefighting has tripled, leaving hundreds of millions less for general operations. Without those operating funds, the only way the Forest Service can afford to fix its dilapidated Bridger-Teton headquarters building is to sell the land on which it sits.
This headquarters dilemma is a trivial but instructive microcosm of the messages being sent by Hurricane Sandy: As global warming’s effects escalate, the role of federal agencies such as the Forest Service will become increasingly important. Yet just as that need is increasing, antipathy toward government is resulting in less money for agency operations and infrastructure. Logically, it makes no sense, but as the current campaign has shown, logic and politics went their separate ways long ago.
As a result, no matter who is elected next week, there’s no doubt the Forest Service property will be sold. A Romney administration will likely eviscerate the Forest Service’s budget; a second Obama administration will merely whack it. Either way, the only way the Forest Service can afford to rebuild the Bridger-Teton headquarters is to sell off its seed corn.
In this context, the question then becomes: “What will become of that property?” Proposition No. 1 will enable the town to buy it, and I’ll vote for the proposition for three reasons.
First, because locals will pay only 60 percent of the cost, tourists will pay $5.4 million. For the community to get $13.5 million in value for $8.1 million in local tax dollars is a screaming deal.
Second, having the headquarters here is important to the qualities that make Jackson Hole distinctive, and the only chance we have for keeping the Bridger-Teton headquarters in Teton County is for the town to buy the land.
I’ve long argued that the greatest threat to Jackson Hole’s future prosperity is to allow ourselves to become homogenized; every change that makes us more like every other place is another step in killing our distinctiveness through a thousand cuts.
What makes us truly distinctive? What can’t be replicated by other communities? Only three things: our landscape, our wildlife and our community character. Integral to each is the Forest Service, which controls half the land in Teton County and whose history here dates back to 1897, 17 years before the town of Jackson was incorporated.
Distinctive Jackson Hole
Keeping the Bridger-Teton headquarters in Jackson will enhance all three legs of our distinctiveness trifecta. During the era of global warming, it will not only allow the Forest Service to keep a more watchful eye on the county’s forest lands and wildlife, but it also will provide us with a constant reminder of our intimate and long-standing connection to the community’s original conservation organization.
I say this knowing that, even if the town buys the Forest Service land, there’s no guarantee the headquarters will stay on that property. But given that the sale is foreordained, the only realistic chance we have of keeping the Bridger-Teton headquarters in Jackson is if the town controls the property.
Third, what if the Bridger-Teton decides to move its headquarters anyway? That would be a blow to the community’s character, but I don’t see it as an argument against the deal. Two reasons here. First, to remain distinctive, Jackson Hole doesn’t need another hotel or commercial development — we have plenty, thank you — yet that’s almost invariably what would go on the site if the town doesn’t own it. Far better to have the opportunity to turn this gateway parcel into something that continues to reflect the community’s noncommercial character, and the only way to do that is for the town to own the property.
The other reason is my faith in Jackson Hole’s future. As is true for the nation as a whole, it’s clear from the data that Teton County is pulling out of its economic slump. And while there’s a chance we could go back into recession, that’s a short-term consideration.
In contrast, buying the Forest Service property is a long-term consideration. Buying it with SPET dollars would afford us the luxury of taking a long-term view: We would hope to keep the Bridger-Teton headquarters here, but we would have the freedom to do something that would enhance our character if the B-T ultimately decided to pull out.
Then assume the worst case: that the town is forced to sell the property somewhere down the line. If you believe in Jackson Hole’s future, you have to believe that, 10 or 20 years from now, that property will be worth far more than what the town will pay today. And then, when you consider that tourists will be paying 40 percent of the cost, purchasing it holds the promise of a tremendous long-term windfall for the town of Jackson: In the worst case economically, in the best case in helping retain or enhance a prized element of our character.
As I say, a no-brainer.
Jonathan Schechter, whose column appears every other week in this spot, is executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson-based think tank. Complete versions of columns, including graphics, are available at Charture.org. Email him at email@example.com.