Voters approved $75 million worth of projects in Tuesday’s election, saying yes to all but one ballot item: $2 million for planning to upgrade the Teton County Courthouse.
During a post election watch party at Hole Bowl, representatives for most projects gathered, eyes glued to smartphones awaiting the results. Once the vote totals rolled in, they were invariably surprised that so many of the less flashy measures passed.
“There were several items on the ballot that weren’t the usual eye candy,” County Commissioner Luther Propst said. “It’s particularly gratifying that the voters studied those projects and voted for them.”
Voters approved more funds than any past single specific purpose excise tax election, ensuring the 1% sales tax will remain in place to fund nine projects over the next several years.
The most popular proposition, which won 5,372 votes (86%) will collect $1.6 million to purchase four wildland firefighting engines for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS.
The second biggest vote-getter will dedicate $10 million to wildlife crossings. That item won with 4,947 votes (79%).
“It’s a great day,” said Vance Carruth, who has been advocating for wildlife crossings for nearly two decades. “It’s got to be one of the highlights of my life to see it pass. It’s been a long, long time.”
Carruth credited the big group of supporters who canvassed for the crossings, bringing the concept to prominence in recent months. That campaign has been driven largely by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and Director Skye Schell said virtually all the voters he talked to said they planned to support the project.
“It was the best door-knocking I’ve ever had,” he said. “We knew people would support wildlife, but we didn’t know how much.”
The town of Jackson’s top priority in the election, securing $18.5 million for a vehicle maintenance facility, won by a narrower margin with 54% of the vote.
Assistant Public Works Director Johnny Ziem said he was skeptical it would pass, considering the same project failed during the last SPET election in 2017. But town officials have recently stressed the importance of the facility to all operations of local government, from snowplowing to public transportation to law enforcement.
“We kind of reframed the conversation this time around,” Ziem said. “I think people understand it has a direct impact on everything in the community.”
As for the other two approved items under Ziem’s jurisdiction — upgrades to the Cache Creek stormwater tube and to Gregory Lane, much of which involves stormwater improvements — he asked, “How can you vote against water quality?”
The most expensive project on the ballot, $22 million for an expansion of the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center, won over 58% of voters. Parks and Rec Director Steve Ashworth wasn’t sure what to expect going into Election Day. He knew the Rec Center was popular, but it was also pricey.
“I was concerned that folks would be scared off by the number,” Ashworth said.
He said it’s interesting that 58% of voters approved the Rec Center project, given that that’s about how many people said their needs aren’t being met by the current Rec Center in a recent survey.
Another project that kept its supporters wondering was $5.5 million to build affordable housing. For months elected officials have fruitlessly tried to agree on a controversial housing project on West Kelly Avenue. Some feared the lack of progress would dissuade voters from allocating more funding toward the town and county’s housing program.
“It’s very exciting,” Housing Director April Norton said. “I think people recognize the need.”
Brenda Ashworth, superintendent of Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling, was “thrilled” the recycling improvements won approval.
“We’re going to be able to up our diversion rate,” she said. “With our current infrastructure, we’re pretty much at the max of what we’re able to accomplish.”
Tuesday’s vote also means the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum can move ahead with purchasing its own land at the Cafe Genevieve block on East Broadway Avenue. For years, the museum has struggled to find a permanent home for its programs and collection.
“It’s great to get the confirmation that voters care about history and this block,” museum Director Morgan Jaouen said. “We’re excited to be a part of it and move forward.”
The museum plans to fundraise to match the SPET contribution of $4.4 million.
Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen said he suspects intense campaigning from conservation groups for the wildlife crossings measure and from the History Museum helped push voters to the polls, and increased turnout benefited all of the projects.
“When we look at some of the very visible projects, probably between the Historical Society and the wildlife crossings, they did a great job of getting people out to the polls,” Jorgensen said. “That additional turnout, which was higher than I expected, I think helped a lot of these other items that didn’t have that kind of constituency.”
Jorgensen also noted that this was the first SPET election that saw a political action committee advocating for all 10 projects: “Jackson Hole Votes Yes.” The vote yes PAC raised $12,480; the historical museum PAC raised $25,010; the wildlife crossing PAC pulled in $8,000; and the Rec Center PAC collected $3,300 to spend on political campaigns.
In total, 6,344 ballots were cast, putting turnout at 49%. That’s slightly higher than the last special SPET election in May 2017, when 5,983 ballots were cast, bringing turnout to 45%. Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle said the flow of voters was “constant” and “steady” at the vote centers at Teton County Library and in Wilson.
“I think it’s awesome that the voters came out and spoke their minds, and nobody can say any of these projects were pushed on them,” Daigle said. “We got a good enough turnout to show this is what the people want, so that’s awesome.”
At the vote center in Wilson, most voters were driven to the polls by the $10 million wildlife crossings measure. Living in Wilson — near Highways 22 and 390 — means bearing witness to frequent wildlife-vehicle collisions. Wilson voter Shannon Troxler said she voted for all 10 tax measures, but wildlife crossings were most important.
“I live on the Village road and I have seen eight or 10 dead moose over the last year,” Troxler said. “I hope it helps with that.”
Other voters’ priorities were wide-ranging. Leesa Wilde, who works for Teton County School District’s Transportation Department, said she came to the library to vote for updates to Gregory Lane, where the district says many children walk along the road to get to school.
“I see these kids,” she said, “and it would be nice for them to have sidewalks to walk on.”
Wilson voter Justin Fann said his priorities were wildlife crossings, community housing and the Rec Center expansion.
“Housing obviously is continuing to be a more and more challenging feat, just to stay in this place,” Fann said.
Kelli Petrick brought her two daughters with her to vote at the library Tuesday evening. Petrick said she was most excited about the Rec Center expansion, which includes a climbing gym.
“We are there twice a week pretty much all year round for swimming,” she said. “I used to climb a lot at the climbing gym, so I’ve been sad since that’s closed.”
Despite their varied interests, though, voters collectively supported nearly everything the town and county requested. Never before has a SPET election with so much money at stake been so successful.
“The amazing story to this election is that people said yes to 9 of 10 issues, including what they might not be directly benefiting from,” Schell said. “People said yes to the community.”
After a heated debate over whether to “bundle” all of the individual projects into a single ballot question, elected officials ultimately opted for the “a la carte” structure traditionally used for SPET ballots. That had some elected officials, including town Councilor Jorgensen, worried that core infrastructure items would fail.
“I’m glad to be wrong,” Jorgensen said. “I’m very pleased the voters took the time and researched and made the choices that will invest in this community for the future. I’m pleased the voters saw to it to vote for a wide range of these items.”
Sales tax funding for the projects will be collected over the next several years. Though revenues fluctuate, if current sales tax trends continue, the projects will be funded in about five years.
It’s still unclear in what order the projects will come to fruition. County Treasurer Katie Smits said she would soon send letters to the heads of the relevant departments and begin working with them to create a “distribution schedule,” based on the status of each project and when they each need funding.
“Now the county and town have to deliver,” Commissioner Propst said, “and we will.”
— Billy Arnold contributed to this report
— This story has been updated with official election results (including 77 ballots counted after the initial unofficial tally). The additional ballots did not change the outcome. See attached grid for precinct-by-precinct details. — Ed.