This is the time of year when we count our blessings, which for most of us in Jackson Hole are numerous. It is also the time to reconsider how well we care for the most vulnerable among us.
Unfortunately, the State of Wyoming ranks among the worst states in providing a baseline of support for critical needs in mental health, early childhood education, abuse protection, youth and family services, addiction treatment and help for disabled Americans. Unlike many states, Wyoming provides few human services on its own, preferring to fund nonprofit providers. It is a viable model, but you have to fund it. State of Wyoming support for human services has been bad for a long time. With recent cuts to state budgets, the situation is getting much worse.
The State of Wyoming’s position is simply cruel. In the 2020 budget, $116.5 million was cut from the Department of Health due to “a decline in state revenues.” For eight years now, Wyoming has refused to accept over $1 billion in federal dollars through Medicaid expansion. These dollars would have covered much of this health care shortfall, at little cost to Wyoming taxpayers.
The bottom line is that in Teton County we are increasingly on our own when it comes to providing essential human services. For example, 10 years ago Teton Youth and Family Services received 63% of its budget from the state. Today, it is 32%. A friend who runs a similar statewide child welfare group in Maine tells me their state support is 99% of budget.
The housing crunch in Teton County compounds the problem. Staff retention is even more difficult when you cannot pay people enough to live here. Community Entry Services, which provides care for individuals with developmental disabilities, has 10 of 16 positions open. The stress of two years of COVID-19 adds to the demand for services. Essential human services face precarious risks in Teton County.
In response to the state cuts, Jackson Town and Teton County government have stepped up to help our human service providers. With solid tax revenues this year, they can do more. Private philanthropy has stepped up. One remarkable couple, Molly and Wayne Hughes, provided a $10 million grant to provide housing for human service employees, police and deputies, and emergency medical personnel. This is probably the largest private gift to our community on any issue in Jackson Hole history. It will have a wonderful impact, forever. (Imagine doing something that will have a wonderful impact forever.) However, even this remarkable gift will not be enough.
There are some options that could really help long term. The most obvious step would be to approve a significant Special Purpose Excise Tax (SPET) to provide housing for essential workers. In 2019, we approved a $22 million SPET for improvements at the Teton County Recreation Center (now estimated to cost $31 million). We need to do at least as much to provide housing for those who provide essential public services.
A real estate transfer tax dedicated to worker housing would be an excellent way to match a solution to housing shortages with one of the main causes — a robust and expensive housing market. Just under $2.5 billion in real estate was sold in Teton County last year. A 1% transfer tax would yield around $25 million — maybe each year. The Wyoming Association of Realtors opposes this. The Teton Board of Realtors has not taken a position on this issue. Other mountain towns use a transfer tax very effectively to address the housing problems they face.
Human services are highly cost-effective. The alternatives to proactive treatment, such as hospitalization or incarceration, are much more expensive. Most of the research shows that essential human services return many times the investment, sometimes as high as 8 to 1.
Support of human services, how we treat our most vulnerable, is the true measure of any community. Happy Holidays.