Landowners and some county commissioners want to see a better explanation of financial assumptions used by consultants to draft preliminary options for building anywhere from 100 to more than 2,000 homes in northern South Park.
“$400,000 of public money, and we can’t get the math?” Commissioner Mark Barron said at a recent county meeting. He was citing the price the town and county have paid for the planning effort and lamenting a decision by consultant Opticos Design Inc., and its subcontractor, Cascadia Partners, to not release a spreadsheet of financial models behind the alternatives.
The consultant had said the spreadsheet was “proprietary” but released a PDF version of the document.
After weeks of debate, Teton County Planning and Building Director Chris Neubecker said in an email to the Jackson Hole Daily on Friday that more detail about the financial analysis in question should be forthcoming. But he said he didn’t know when it would be provided to the public. Commissioners have asked for new information to be made available for public comment.
“Our consultants are providing more information and documentation on where they obtained data and other assumptions used in the model, and why they believe this data is appropriate for this planning process,” Neubecker wrote.
The Gill family, one of two landowning families in the area, has been pushing for the release of the Excel spreadsheet, which would contain formulas underlying the math, and the information about the “base assumptions, methodology, calculations and source data” used in models underpinning alternatives for developing the area.
Their attorney, Amberley Baker, criticized the pace of the response when asked where she thought the process stood.
Baker said in an emailed statement to the Daily that it “wasn’t standing at all.”
Instead, she wrote, “it is crawling towards that county planning shelf (where 30 years of other workforce proposals sit) because in this case the process is now being ransomed by California consultants” — the consultants’ zip code has been a consistent whipping post for critics of the process — “who won’t disclose the basic public financial information behind their math. Transparency apparently requires an upcharge to the nearly half a million dollar consultant contract and a longer public process — and that is wrong.”
Neubecker did not directly answer a question about whether acquiring the information the Gills had asked for would cost more money. In his email, he wrote that the county’s goal is to get information “appropriate for this planning project, within the scope of the existing contract.”
He said Teton County and the town of Jackson have already paid Opticos $198,746 of the $400,000 in the budget for the project.
The Gills contend that understanding the assumptions and math behind the financial models is critical to understanding values like the public subsidy the models project would be required to build affordable housing: A projection that ranges from $100 million to $500 million as density increases in the alternatives.
Those proposals were released in August and public comment formally closed on Sept. 7. Teton County is now compiling that feedback into a neighborhood plan for public review.
Landowner Nikki Gill criticized the process in a Sept. 9 email to county commissioners.
“Withholding detailed information with the two landowners in Northern South Park as to how the financial analyses were derived is disingenuous to the way the process is supposed to work,” she wrote in a letter sent from the Gills’ development team.
Gill referenced the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan that says the area should be planned in consultation with the landowners: the Gills and the Lockharts.
“Let’s face it, without landowners buy-in, this plan will never work,” she wrote.
Teton County, Opticos and the subconsultant that developed the models, Cascadia, released a PDF spreadsheet of the analysis underpinning the alternatives before public comment closed. And they’ve released slides about some of the assumptions in the model that show, among other things, how the public subsidy would be impacted at land values higher than $100,000 per acre. That’s what the models say a developer would acquire the land for, and some process watchers have said that’s far too low.
Those documents do not appear to answer all of the Gills’ questions, which touch on park development costs, infrastructure costs, and lot prices, including the $100,000 per acre land value.
The Gills also are generally asking for a better explanation of how the consultants came up with the numbers they used.
Alex Joyce, a partner with Cascadia, has said in emails that the Excel spreadsheet behind the models — something the Gills have asked for — can’t be released because it is “proprietary.”
Chief Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery told the Daily last Tuesday that, after a meeting between the Gills, county and consultants, Neubecker was talking with the consultants about answering the family’s questions.
“A lot of the questions the Gills were raising also apply to the county,” Gingery said. “If there are questions as to the product, we’re the ones that should ask the question.”
Barron wasn’t the only commissioner interested in seeing more numbers.
Commissioner Greg Epstein called for an “open audit” of the models, and Commissioner Luther Propst asked about legal options for obtaining the information during a Sept. 7 meeting.
Commissioners have not asked about the situation publicly since that meeting, where Gingery said he was trying to smooth things over and acquire information without legal action.
But commissioners did ask planning staff to give the public the opportunity to comment on any new information that’s obtained and released. Calls to Opticos and Cascadia were not returned.