Commissioners approved a flurry of last-minute additions to the county budget Tuesday, about $200,000 in small gains for planning, public safety and human services as well as the sheriff and, paradoxically, those seeking to defund police patrol operations.
And while adding expenditures to the budget at the last minute hasn’t been the county’s usual practice, officials said this year has not been a usual year.
“We are living in a very dynamic situation,” Teton County Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker told the News&Guide. She spoke shortly after the board approved the county’s $36.5 million general budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts today.
That amount is just under $8.5 million less than the fiscal year 2020 budget, an 18.9% decrease year over year.
Economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic first led the county to predict a 50% decline in sales and lodging tax, which normally make up about 45% of its revenues. Commissioners requested widespread budget cuts and held employee salaries flat for the year. And, in the past two weeks, a new activist group, Act Now JH, added some complexity, attending county meetings in force and lobbying commissioners to defund law enforcement’s patrol budgets and divert those funds to social services.
The debate Act Now JH started with the elected officials, which involved an email campaign and hours of testimony delivered in public meetings before Tuesday’s vote, also shook up the budget process. It usually doesn’t attract so much public comment.
“Our budget is the people’s budget,” Macker said. “I think it is really exciting to see people in the community engage” and, she added, “I think it’s more engagement than I’ve seen.”
But it was also a slog. Tuesday’s meeting saw commissioners debate adding around 15 last-minute line items into the budget over the course of nearly five hours.
Money for a number of proposals didn’t make it in, including funding for developing new housing finance tools, hiring a conservation planner and planning the intersection of Coyote Canyon Road and Indian Springs Drive. Commissioner Greg Epstein’s proposal to bring a senior joint long-range planning position fully under the county’s fiscal responsibility also failed. Commissioners compromised, deciding instead to hire an associate planner to focus on long- term issues.
But funds for seven other items were approved.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS received $4,000 for training and $12,000 for radios, and commissioners funded a number of human service requests fully for $69,190. The board also budgeted $25,000 for master planning Stilson and dedicated an additional $20,000 to evaluating the feasibility of a regional transit planning organization, or RTPO. That project would likely need additional funding from the town.
But the highest profile and longest debated additions to the general fund spending plan were about $70,000 for dispatcher raises — the total cost, Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said, could be closer to $145,000 — and $10,000 for a law enforcement task force and assessment, which commissioners added after hearing Act Now JH’s testimony.
Carr has campaigned for the dispatcher raises for at least a year, asking the town and county to pay dispatchers the same rate as patrol deputies and detention officers.
“It’s the hardest job in law enforcement,” Carr told commissioners.
When Carr first alerted the board to the retention problem in 2019 the county had only eight dispatchers, half what it should have. They were working mandatory overtime just to fill shifts and often putting callers on hold to handle bigger emergency calls.
They were “one dispatcher away from not being able to answer every 911 call,” Carr said.
Now the office has 10 dispatchers with three candidates in the hiring process. The approval Tuesday means 12 of those dispatchers will be paid equal to their jail and patrol counterparts. The county approved funding for the 10 existing staffers and the two farthest along in the process, so Carr will have to return to commissioners if he wants to hire more than 12 dispatchers. The center is considered fully staffed with 16 people.
Act Now JH members Ivan Jimenez and Brad Smith said they supported the dispatcher pay increase but cautioned against confusing that support with their calls to defund patrol.
“We want to be really clear that we stand behind our message of defunding police and funding community,” Jimenez said. “The patrols aren’t needed as much as they’re out on the street.”
The activists said the funding for the law enforcement assessment was “promising.” They saw no motion from the Jackson Town Council when they petitioned it to defund law enforcement in June.
“It’s progress in the right direction,” Jimenez said.
But they were only cautiously optimistic. More discussion will be needed to figure out who will be included in the task force and what the assessment will entail. The $10,000 commissioners put in the 2021 budget will likely be used to hire a facilitator for early meetings.
Jimenez was clear that the group wasn’t looking for reform.
“We are trying to take away power from the police,” he said. “If we want to consider our movement moving in the right direction, did we empower law enforcement with more responsibility or did we take away responsibility from them and put it in more proper hands?”
Like the activists, Carr didn’t know what the next steps are but said funding the assessment shows interest in community engagement on policing and makes sure more people’s voices are heard.
“I am excited that [commissioners] are recognizing that there have been community members who are looking for a change,” he said. “I look forward to participating.”