Town goes virtual

Mayor Pete Muldoon is seen on a television screen speaking during a special Town Council meeting March 17 from the lobby of Town Hall. The town has moved its meeting to a virtual format that will give the public a chance to comment in real time, online.

The Jackson Town Council approved deep budget cuts this week and decided to postpone salary increases for elected officials.

Town Manager Larry Pardee presented a budget adjustment for the rest of the fiscal year ending in June that saves almost $2.8 million. Councilors unanimously approved the amendment.

“Our world has changed overnight,” Pardee told councilors, “and we needed to adjust quickly.”

Town staff scoured department budgets to find cuts to offset the sharp drops in sales and lodging tax revenue that are anticipated, he said.

Strategies include freezing vacant positions except for law enforcement; freezing expenditures where possible; reducing START bus service and staffing, and reassigning employees to reduce seasonal staffing; and postponing capital projects, information technology upgrades and vehicle purchases.

Savings also came from a temporary reduction to a paid-time-off buyback program, which allows employees to be refunded for earned but unused sick or personal time.

In response to Mayor Pete Muldoon’s question about layoffs, Pardee confirmed that bus drivers and some part-time workers had either seen a reduction in hours or been laid off early. Pardee said most of them were winter seasonals, but some spring seasonal employees had hours reduced or jobs put on hold. Supervisors also cut their own hours to save money, he said.

“Next year will be an even bigger challenge,” Pardee warned.

The Town Council also voted 4 to 1 to postpone increasing salaries for Jackson’s next mayor and councilors who win in the next election. If approved on two more readings, raises will go into effect July 1, 2021 — six months later than originally planned.

Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson proposed the delay in recognition of the economic crunch created by the global pandemic.

Councilor Jonathan Schechter, who did the math and arrived at the new salaries based on adjustments for inflation since 2005, the last time salaries were raised, originally supported the increase, but changed his mind, casting the lone "no" vote Monday.

“This is a great idea, but the timing is awful,” Schechter said, describing what he was hearing from the community. “COVID-19 is our new reality, and it’s fundamentally changed our world since we floated the pay raise in January or even since we voted on it two weeks ago.”

The rest of the council and the one public comment offered at Monday’s meeting favored higher salaries as a way to encourage more people, from diverse economic backgrounds, to run for public office.

Muldoon stressed that the decision needed to be made before the May deadline to file to run for office, so potential candidates would know what the salary will be.

He noted that he was encouraging more competition for candidates like himself; he’s running for a council seat while Levinson is seeking the mayor’s job. Both have to win their elections to receive the salary increases.

Councilor Jim Stanford has not yet announced if he will run.

Levinson said she values diversifying the pool of candidates to create a more representative democracy, and that the raise would make a difference.

“What is one of the roadblocks holding women, minorities and others running from office?” she asked. “Resources.”

While receiving public comment, she said, she was asked if $7,750 more a year would influence someone’s decision to run for Town Council.

Her answer: “Yes, it allows a parent to pay for two more days of child care for a year in Teton County.”

She said waiting could mean postponing a salary increase until 2023.

If approved, council salaries will increase $25,000 to $32,750, and the mayor’s salary from $30,000 to $39,300.

In comparison, Teton County commissioners each earned $50,000 in 2019, according to public records.

Increased salaries wouldn’t apply to Schechter or Councilor Arne Jorgensen, who were elected in November 2018 and took their seats in January 2019.

This article has been corrected. Councilor Jonathan Schechter voted no to the salary increases for councilors and the next mayor. — Ed.

Contact Managing Editor Rebecca Huntington at 732-7078 or rebecca@jhnewsandguide.com.

Managing Editor Rebecca Huntington has worked for newspapers across the West. She hosts a rescue podcast, The Fine Line. Her family minivan doubles as her not-so-high-tech recording studio.

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