County opposes SPET on general ballot

May 23, 2018

The Teton County Commission seems uninterested in tackling specific purpose excise tax measures on November’s general election ballot, a move that could mean voters are in store for a special SPET election come spring.

“We’ll likely need a special election in 2019 in order to make sure the sixth penny doesn’t go away,” Teton County Commission Chairman Mark Newcomb said.

Voters approved more than $34 million in a special election in May 2017, which will pay for six projects through a 1-cent sales tax. The money is funding renovation of the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center, the purchase of land for Central Wyoming College-Jackson, and fire station upgrades, among other projects.

Vendors collect the tax and submit the money the Wyoming Department of Revenue, which disburses funds monthly to the county. The penny of sales tax kicked in in October 2017, and the Teton County treasurer began monthly SPET disbursements in December 2017. Disbursements will continue through June 2020.

Unless voters approve new projects before the end of collection, likely in early to mid-2020, the sales tax will drop back to 5 percent. Options to continuously collect the sixth penny include placing SPET items before voters on the November 2018 general midterm election ballot or holding a special election in August or November 2019, which would incur extra costs.

Newcomb sought to take the board’s temperature on “bridging” the tax collections with a measure on the November 2018 ballot in a Monday workshop. So far SPET projects floated have included wildlife crossings, improving the Hoback fire station or an expansion of the Teton County School District’s middle school.

The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition urged the board to consider a $6 to $10 million SPET measure for wildlife crossings.

“We know from public opinion research that wildlife crossings receive strong and bipartisan support from likely voters,” a letter signed by the two advocacy organizations read. “Allowing voters the opportunity to show their support for safe wildlife crossings on the next SPET ballot is a clear way to effectively and efficiently implement the master plan and uphold our community vision set out in the Comprehensive Plan.”

Teton County School District No. 1’s crowding problems are also high on the list of ideas, as the district wrestles with how to handle crowding.

The school district is considering a number of options, from a school in Teton Village to a career education facility. While a middle school addition is also on that list of possibilities, Jackson Hole Middle School is the oldest school in the district and one of the trickiest to renovate. A second level can’t be added to the structure, and an addition would eat up field space.

In a presentation to the town and county on May 16, the Village school stood out as a favorite option. There are a lot of issues that need to be ironed out if that school came to fruition, namely who it will serve and how it could affect traffic. As for how to pay for the project, the district has floated the idea of a bond vote to raise the necessary funds for construction.

While the county board won’t push for a 2018 SPET measure, Newcomb said a strong, urgent request — such as one coming from the school district — would be considered.

“I do support your provision that we would be looking at a single item — if there was an item — that appropriately bridged the gap in collections, rather than a whole slate of items,” Commissioner Natalia Macker said.

She also noted additional SPET items may be needed in 2019 to compensate for lost revenues should the lodging tax not pass.

Still, the idea wasn’t popular with the board.

Commissioner Greg Epstein worried about “SPET fatigue,” and said the county should instead turn its attention to renewal of the lodging tax.

“There’s already what I deem a negative narrative about the lodging tax in the community,” Epstein said. “I would rather really focus on having the lodging tax re-enacted and then worry about SPET somewhere down the line.”

Epstein added that many residents are also coping with increased property taxes this year — something Newcomb suggested could dip in the future should voters be willing to continue funding capital projects through SPET rather than general funds.

Epstein stressed a need for strategy with taxation and “the public’s appetite.”

“A large portion of the electorate currently right now is very frustrated with their property taxes,” he said. “For us to throw another tax on top of a tax we’re trying to re-enact ... I feel like people are just going to be upset.”

Ultimately the discussion about any SPET proposals needs to include a conversation with the Town Council, which hasn’t yet discussed a November 2018 SPET. The town and county are expected to discuss the vetting process for future SPET projects at a joint meeting June 4.

SPET ballot language must be finalized by Aug. 27 to be included in the Nov. 6 general election.

— Education reporter Kylie Mohr contributed to this report.