Voters will decide whether to continue funding for the Teton Conservation District and which three candidates will sit on the district’s board.
What is the Conservation District?
One of the lower-profile local government agencies, the Teton Conservation District has been active in the community since the mid-1940s, albeit originally under a different name. It now works with private landowners and government agencies on conservation projects throughout the valley.
Among them: monitoring for fecal bacteria and nutrients in streams and rivers; consulting with and offering grants to homeowners to mitigate wildfire risk on their properties; supporting local agriculture and research through annual grants; and mapping drinking water challenges and septic systems throughout Jackson Hole.
Of the Conservation District’s roughly $2.2 million 2022 budget, the bulk of its roughly $930,000 program budget — about $400,000 — was spent on water quality projects. Part of that work involved funding a study that identified human wastewater as the greatest source of identifiable fecal bacteria in Fish and Flat Creeks. The District is also the primary entity that works with the U.S. Geological Survey to operate stream gauges that monitor river flows and temperatures along the Snake River and its tributaries, putting $50,000 toward the program. It also distributes well test kits so residents can test their drinking water.
“We’re intended to be small government,” said Carlin Girard, the district’s executive director. “We’re designed to be small, nimble and adaptable to the needs of the community compared to other forms of government that tend to be more bureaucratic and slower to respond.”
The funding question
Every four years, voters are given the opportunity to vote on the primary source of the Conservation District’s funding: a property tax, or mill levy, that typically constitutes just over 1/100th of a Teton County taxpayer’s annual property tax bill. Under the current levy, that equates to roughly $57 of a roughly $5,300 property tax bill on a home valued at $1 million.
This year the Conservation District’s board opted to cut its mill levy from 0.8 to 0.6, a reduction that would save someone who owns a $1 million property roughly $20. The district has the ability to request up to 1 mill, so its current tax is about 40% lower than what it could request.
With rising property values, this year’s reduction held the district’s budget relatively flat over previous years. Board members said they did it to lighten taxpayers’ load, however small.
“Suffice to say, as property taxes have increased for private landowners, the tax burden from Teton Conservation District has not,” Steve McDonald, the district’s board chair, said in a press release announcing the reduction.
Voters have approved the district’s mill levy every four years since 1998. In 2018 it was approved with roughly 80% of the vote, though the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Greater Yellowstone Coalition formed a political action committee that, in part, advocated for the measure. In previous cycles, it has passed with just north of 50% of the vote.
Girard said the district would not be starting a PAC to advocate for its funding — or asking anyone to. Rather, it’s relying on educating people about the work it’s done over the past year. People can read more about the district in its annual report at TinyURL.com/TCD22report.
This year the funding proposition was inadvertently left off the main ballot. The Teton County Clerk’s Office is remedying the mistake by attaching a third page to the ballot.
The four candidates
Voters have the option to choose three of four candidates to represent rural areas for four-year terms on the Teton Conservation District board. Incumbents Dave Adams, Steve McDonald and Bob Lucas are running. Cate Watsabaugh also is seeking a seat.
At a Teton County Library forum, Adams and McDonald argued that voting for them would be a vote for continuity on the board.
Adams serves on the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts’ board and said that Teton County has become a model for the state.
“A lot of counties are starting to have Teton syndrome,” Adams said, pointing to rapid development elsewhere in Wyoming. “We’re becoming an asset for the rest of the state.”
McDonald, a one-term board member from Alta, said he’s a representative of the agricultural community: “I really am proud of the fact that we have an excellent staff,” he said. “We’ve done what I think is a very good job spending your money wisely.”
Bob Lucas didn’t attend, but Adams delivered a closing statement in his stead: “Our job is to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely,” Adams said, reading a statement for Lucas. “I’m really glad that we dropped the mill to 0.6, and I would’ve dropped it some more.”
Watsabaugh, of Wilson, said a vote for her would be a vote for giving new voices a chance, not unseating incumbents: “The Conservation Board, the supervisors, and the staff is doing really incredible work and being such a well functioning entity that I don’t really want to unseat anybody,” she said. “I’m essentially asking for a chance to give back to the community in a way that I think gives back to the people as much as it gets back to the place.”