When the County Commission, which controls Teton County’s purse strings, asked the county’s other elected officials about their priorities for spending any extra money in the fiscal year 2021 budget, those officials all pointed to the same thing: regular pay raises for their employees.
“As elected officials, we have to provide services to the public. In order to do so, we’ve got to have employees,” Teton County Assessor Melissa Shinkle told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 21. “Our employees have worked very hard — they always work very hard — but through this pandemic, especially.”
At nearly the halfway point in the fiscal year that began July 1, the commission has not yet decided how to spend any extra funds in the county’s coffers.
Aside from the County Commission’s five members, Teton County has seven elected officials: the assessor, treasurer, clerk, attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff and coroner. After hearing from Treasurer Katie Smits and Clerk Maureen Murphy about the county’s financial performance this fiscal year (it hasn’t been as bad, so far, as projected), six of those seven officials asked the County Commission to consider their employees.
“I think it’s become abundantly clear that we’ve survived better than we thought,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr told commissioners. “Our employees have worked through this pandemic and continue to work through this pandemic and serve our county. Their costs, whether rentals or mortgages, have not gone down. And I think that this merit increase is something that we can afford to do.”
Coroner Brent Blue was the only elected official who did not speak at the meeting but told the Jackson Hole Daily Monday that he also supported an employee pay bump. County Administrator Alyssa Watkins, who oversees the staff beneath the County Commission, also advocated for considering annual pay raises.
County employees generally receive annual 2.5% pay bumps. Commissioners froze those increases when budgeting for fiscal year 2021, which began in July and ends in June 2021. The annual pay raises were one of the expenses put on the chopping block in order to absorb a projected 50% decline in sales tax revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Putting the full increase back into the budget would cost about $520,000.
Treasurer Katie Smits said Monday that Teton County is doing better than expected. The summer, as anyone who witnessed the throngs of tourists can attest, was busy.
The county budgeted $36 million for general fund revenues this fiscal year, and had collected about $20 million by the end of November. Smits said sales tax collections are also higher.
“So we’re definitely not at the 50% mark,” Smits said of the original projection for revenue decline. “It’s about 15%.”
And while what happens this winter remains to be seen — for the time being Jackson Hole is open for business — the county’s in good shape.
“Maybe we will be slow and winter is going to be bad. We could possibly be down 50% of sales tax for the rest of the year,” Smits said. “If that’s true, we’re still standing pretty good so far.”
But while the fiscal picture is not as dire as officials originally predicted, at least one branch of local government is underwater: the Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation department.
“Many of our programs are not happening,” Parks and Rec Director Steve Ashworth said. “Being conservative ... we are actually looking at close to an $850,000 revenue loss.”
Ashworth said his department has eliminated five positions, furloughed or reassigned six others, and managed to reduce its budget by $730,000.
But “we’re still upside down,” he continued. “If things continue the way they are, we’re going to be looking at the elected officials for an infusion of some additional funding in order to keep us from cutting and reducing and taking away more of our staff.”
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS has likewise had a difficult year. Fire Chief Brady Hansen said having 50% of his paid staff quarantined at one point required dipping significantly into overtime and hiring some of the department’s volunteers to run ambulances. That, coupled with unanticipated vehicle maintenance to the tune of roughly $18,000, strained his budget.
“We’re doing our best,” Hansen told commissioners. “But we definitely have areas where, due to the circumstances of the pandemic and operating the ambulance ... we have exceeded what is currently funded in the budget.”
Some of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS’ costs will be backfilled by Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, officials said. So before making a decision on how to spend extra money, commissioners asked for an analysis of how CARES funds will backfill expenditures throughout the county and what other expenses they’ll need to prioritize.
Commissioner Mark Barron was hesitant to start spending any more than the county already is.
“I would think it’s premature to take any ‘corrective’ changes or courses in action six months into this budget,” he said. “Anything can happen this year.”
But Commissioner Mark Newcomb said he was interested in unlocking some funds.
“I do want to be conservative and cautious, but I’m very willing to consider a step increase,” he said. “I’m very willing to consider backfilling some of the cuts that departments took to bone.”
This article has been updated with new information. Coroner Brent Blue said he would also support the pay raise for his employees. — Eds.