Town councilors and county commissioners made some headway at their joint meeting Monday as the finish line draws near for deciding which specific purpose excise tax applications make it onto the November ballot and for what dollar amount.
The Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners have met regularly over the past few months to deliberate everything from the applications’ merit to the amount of money they should ask voters to approve over a four- to five-year span beginning in late 2024. Part of that is deciding how much money to allot to each project versus the amount the applicants requested.
Monday’s meeting began with discussion about the Teton County School District’s proposed Bronc Achievement Center, which the district has said is needed due to the severe space constraints the high school is already experiencing and the expected influx of new students in the district over the next few years.
Electeds had already split the district’s $32-plus million application in half, considering the $16 million housing request separately from the Bronc Achievement Center. The housing request has a preliminary thumbs-up from both the town and county for the full $16 million, based on straw polls taken at previous meetings.
At Monday’s joint information meeting the Town Council voted in another straw poll to approve the full $16.5 million requested for the Bronc Achievement Center, while the four members of the County Commission present were split in their vote. Commission Chair Natalia Macker has been absent from meetings in recent months, as she is taking time off for maternity leave, but is expected to return in July in time for the final SPET decisions.
Various dollar amounts were suggested for the Bronc Achievement Center, with some electeds pointing to funding being requested from the state for the project and the SPET funds being “seed money” for the project to show that there is local support.
But Councilors Jessica Sell Chambers and Jonathan Schechter said the district made its request based upon need. Schechter he’s not comfortable second-guessing the numbers put in front of them by the various applicants when they — not the electeds — are the experts regarding their needs.
“Maybe I should just speak for myself, but if they said it’s going to cost that much, then it’s going to cost that much,” Schechter said. “And for us to give somebody a haircut or say, ‘Oh, you could trim here or there,’ just suggests a level of knowledge about a project that I don’t feel I have. So, to echo Councilwoman Chambers’ point just a minute ago, I trust our partners to come forward with the amount that they actually need.”
While councilors approved the full $16.5 million, commissioners were split down the middle with a 2-2 vote due to Macker’s absence.
However, as Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson noted, “these are straw polls. I’m going to say let’s leave it at the $16.505 and, knowing that these are straw polls, we can always change our minds because there’s no final vote until the final vote” in mid-July.
Moving on to the Teton Conservation Fund item, which was initially applied for as “Friends of Munger Mountain: Teton County Conservation Leasing Fund,” there was consensus among the electeds to move the application forward but some disagreement about the dollar amount.
Some favored fully funding the $10 million request, while others, like Commissioner Greg Epstein, suggested a figure closer to $5 million, saying the funds, like those for the Bronc Achievement Center, are seed money.
The straw poll saw the town landing on $8 million for the conservation fund, while commissioners again had a split vote.
After further discussion, Chambers questioned whether voters would be able to fully wrap their heads around the purpose of the conservation fund — at least in part to acquire and preserve public and private lands that might become available.
“I don’t know that the public will understand it,” Chambers said. “It’s risky to put a measure on a SPET [ballot] like this.”
Chambers also asked if the measures would have to be discussed again at their next meeting July 11 when Commission Chair Macker returns.
Commissioner Mark Barron concurred, saying he doesn’t “want to have to regurgitate this a fourth time.”
Morton Levinson, noting the progress made on items during the meeting, said she hoped that would not be the case and again reiterated that the “final vote will happen when the final vote happens.”
The electeds then returned to their discussion of several housing items that have been deliberated over multiple meetings, including whether to group, or “bundle,” some or all of the housing applications under a Community Housing Fund umbrella.
Epstein — who has in the past expressed concern about grouping projects together, saying that voters should be able to decide on individual projects’ merit — said he worried about how bundling the town and county employee housing asks at $20 million each under the Community Housing Fund would go over with voters.
The community fund, he said, perhaps shouldn’t have such specific language.
“I personally believe that people are going to see Town of Jackson and Teton County employee housing and link that to growth of government,” Epstein said.
He said projects that are “ready to go” should be the first to get Community Housing Fund dollars.
Two housing-related items — the Good Samaritan transitional housing ask, and one for senior assisted living and adult day care, for $23 million and $20 million, respectively — were discussed at length. It was determined that the transitional housing item could be included under the Community Housing Fund, though state statute precludes the senior assisted living SPET request from being included there, explained town and county attorneys.
From there the bodies agreed that the town and county employee housing requests should be listed separately on the ballot. The town agreed to $10 million each, rather than the $20 million each had requested, and commissioners did not settle on a specific dollar amount.
Also, they concurred that the Good Samaritan transitional housing should be separate from the housing bundle, though councilors voted it not be put on the ballot, while a majority of the four commissioners present said it should be. Councilor Jim Rooks said he couldn’t support it because they haven’t yet identified a specific property and instead are asking for town-owned property to be donated.
Both bodies also agreed that the senior assisted living request should not be on the ballot, with Councilor Schechter saying “it’s just not there yet” regarding a firm plan.
The Community Housing Fund received support from both the town and county for inclusion on the ballot, with the town opting for the dollar amount at $25 million and the county at $20 million.
The bodies will meet again on July 11, at which time they are expected to make their final decisions on ballot placement and dollar amounts. Morton Levinson noted, however, that they have until July 20, so it’s possible a special meeting would be called between July 11 and 20 if needed.
“... I trust our partners to come forward with the amount that they actually need.” — Jonathan Schechter jackson town councilor