Ambitions soared higher than means Monday, as elected officials watched the cost of their desired projects rise above the roughly $62 million they plan to ask voters for.
With a specific purpose excise tax election approaching in November, the Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners began curating a wide-ranging list of ballot items, from wildlife crossings to a Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center expansion. By the end, something had to give.
“We all want to fund more than we’ve agreed to spend,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “We’ve got a little bit of work left.”
In a series of straw-poll votes, a majority on both boards supported fully funding a set of projects — the Rec Center expansion, wildland fire equipment, a new fleet maintenance facility, improvements to the Gregory Lane corridor and downtown stormwater infrastructure — that totals about $57 million.
Beyond that, most supported at least $7.5 million for wildlife crossings, pushing the cost over the $62 million threshold. And that doesn’t account for a handful of other projects officials plan to consider.
Facing this discrepancy, they have a few options. The most obvious are to either eliminate or reduce funding for certain projects. But with widespread interest in fully funding several of the most expensive, that tactic may not get them far enough.
There may be a way to raise the tax from 1% to 2%, in what would be an unprecedented move for Teton County. Several elected officials suggested offering voters the chance to approve the higher rate.
“This isn’t like we’re throwing tax dollars into some federal black hole and we have no idea where they’re going and what they’re doing,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “This is stuff that matters to the community.”
Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle said the nuances of the increase are unclear. She is looking into the details ahead of the next SPET discussion.
Perhaps the most contentious project is also the one with the most ardent community support: wildlife crossings. A handful of citizens showed up with signs advocating for the creation of the safe passages for animals. One held an antlered animal head in her lap throughout the meeting.
The councilors and commissioners both unanimously support wildlife crossings, but they’re split down the middle about the $15 million request. Without a majority in support of the full funding, that number may drop.
Several councilors suggested halving it. That $7.5 million would still likely be enough to build one or two of the highest-priority crossings at the intersection of Highways 22 and 390, where moose and other wildlife often fall victim to vehicles. But the Wildlife Crossings Master Plan that was approved last summer calls for 12 of the structures spread around the major Teton County thoroughfares.
“We’re talking about a lot of projects here that are going to not only provide immense benefit to the community, they’re going to end up saving the community money,” Newcomb said, arguing for the full $15 million. “Wildlife crossings is exhibit A.”
The elected officials also unanimously supported a last-minute request for $4.4 million to move the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s collections and three historic cabins to the Cafe Genevieve block.
The museum stores many of its thousands of artifacts on a Mercill Avenue property it leases from the county. But that lease expires in March, after which the county intends to build affordable housing on the site, leaving the future of much of the valley’s physical history in limbo.
“It’s really important that we help the Historical Society find a new home as we’re building housing on the site of its current home,” Councilor Jim Stanford said. “It’s really struggling to keep Jackson Hole’s history stored in Jackson Hole, and not in a neighboring county.”
The largest item on the ballot is likely to be the expansion of the Rec Center, which is slated for $22 million. That could include an additional full-court gymnasium, a climbing gym and an indoor track, as well as a renovation of the facility, which Councilor Jim Stanford said is “bursting at the seams despite our best efforts to take good care of it.”
But with so many left to consider — affordable housing supply, upgrades to the recycling center and improvements to the courthouse, to name a few — that costly expansion would take a major toll on SPET collections.
Some wondered whether it would make sense to lower that figure and scale down the project. But Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia Macker argued that’s the “piecemeal” approach that has left the Rec Center in need of such a large sum.
The boards skipped public comment Monday but plan to accept it during a follow-up meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall before finalizing the list of SPET projects and their funding amounts.
Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that the public comment meeting for SPET projects is on Tuesday, not Monday.