With a November election approaching, town and county officials have composed a list of potential projects totaling $90 million that could go to voters for approval.
Each governing body came with seven of its own ideas (see table) for projects to fund through the specific purpose excise tax, an optional 1 percent sales tax. Projects range from up to $21 million for an expansion of the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center to $1.6 million for wildland firefighting vehicles.
The Town Council and Board of County Commissioners must agree on which projects to present to voters. Both generally approved all of the projects, but opinions diverged on one: a land purchase for the future location of the Teton County Fairgrounds.
The county leases the fairgrounds from the town, and that lease expires in 2026. Some think it’s time to start preparing in case the town decides not to renew it in favor of building housing on one the largest available parcels in Jackson.
“2026 is going to come sooner than we realize,” Commissioner Luther Propst said. “I think we need to have the money in the bank rather than doing abstract planning, even if we decide later not to move the fairgrounds.”
Commissioner Mark Barron disagreed, saying it “doesn’t seem like a productive use of public money.”
Councilor Arne Jorgensen took the middle ground. He argued it’s “premature” to talk about a land purchase but prudent to start thinking about the possibility that the fairgrounds will have to move. For example, SPET funds could go toward design ideas for a future site.
The officials didn’t decide which projects to include on the November ballot, but they’re aiming for an overall price of about $62 million, significantly more than normal because this collection cycle would run longer than most.
That’s because they’re trying to put SPET elections on a predictable timeline, occurring every even-numbered year rather than whenever it’s convenient. Jorgensen and Mayor Pete Muldoon came up with the idea to align SPET with other elections and increase the likelihood of voter engagement.
To get onto that timeline, collections from this SPET will have to continue for three years. And since a year of the tax amounts to about $15 million, four years will produce $62 million.
Jorgensen and Muldoon noted that their successors could be tempted to alter the regimented two-year cycle in the future for political purposes, if they fear the tax will be unpopular.
“Just knowing elected officials,” Muldoon said, “if we want this to succeed we’re going to have to make adhering to the process more valuable than not adhering to the process.”
At a separate meeting earlier Monday the councilors considered other adjustments to SPET elections, such as bundling projects. In the past they have offered voters a list of individual projects, but they have the option to group them to be approved or rejected wholesale.
Muldoon and Councilor Jonathan Schechter have argued that it is the job of the elected officials, not the voters, to decide which projects are most urgent.
On Monday, Jorgensen suggested a compromise: a ballot of two or three bundles, preserving the tradition of voter choice but also allowing elected officials to group projects that could be too complex for the average citizen to judge.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a significant voice out there from people that like the choices,” Jorgensen said.
Schechter said he has also heard the opposite from constituents, noting that some people could simply like the more nuanced choices because that’s what they’re familiar with.
“People know a certain thing,” he said. “Does that mean it’s the best thing? That’s the question I wrestle with.”
As the councilors and commissioners fine-tune the SPET process they will likely debate the merits of bundling. It’s common in other parts of the state, but Teton County has never done it.
They’ll meet again in June to finalize the list of projects. After that, staff will write ballot language for elected officials to approve in July.