SPET debate: Wants vs. needs

April 28, 2017 GMT

In the wake of back-and-forth advertising campaigns pushing and panning the 11 specific purpose excise tax initiatives on the May 2 ballot, Jackson Town Councilman Jim Stanford organized a “debate” Thursday between public officials and special interest groups.

“Our community needs a conversation, not attack ads,” Stanford said. “This is really important.”

While Justin Adams of Save Historic Jackson Hole and Keep Wyoming Wild did not show due to family obligations, Bob Culver of the Jackson Hole Tea Party was in attendance to give at least some voice to the opposition.

Culver, a fiscal conservative, would not say whether or not he and his organization supported or opposed any specific proposition, but did say voters should be careful to distinguish between needs and wants.

“We’ve built some capital projects [using SPET] that we wanted and they were good ideas and people like them but are they truly town and county requirements?” Culver rhetorically asked the crowd. “It’s a fact of life, if you build something it’s going to take X numbers of dollars to maintain it each year. Ongoing expenses are a serious problem and what creates that problem is continued capital building, so I’m suggesting we need to go on a diet.”

To help people evaluate each project Culver suggested a set of five criteria: Is the proposal directly related to the responsibility of the town or county? Is it a critical need, timely or safety related? Is there a usual town or county budget process that could cover the project? If so, why should SPET funding be requested to replace that usual funding and if the project is not directly related to the public function of the town or county, what attribute raises it to a special status where public funding is appropriate for a non-public project?

Stanford made it clear that he too considers himself a fiscal conservative, but that there is little to no unnecessary spending in the current budget and the 11 measures on the May 2 ballot were carefully vetted to ensure each project would be an efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

“We studied these issues backwards and forwards, we whittled down items that we viewed as not being necessary and we’re trying to follow through on the community priorities,” Stanford said. “We’ve got public safety on the ballot, housing, transportation, education and health care. For me it’s important we take care of our own needs because the state is not going to be able to help us and we’re probably not going to count on much help from the federal government either.”

As Jackson Hole continues to grow along with the price of services, Stanford said the town and county must find additional sources of funds if they are to maintain the current level of service.

With the general revenue sales tax failing last November, he said SPET was the best way forward.

“Everyone says we want less government but I didn’t hear anyone say we want fewer snowplows this winter,” Stanford said.

“We have a really hard time meeting all of the needs. At the beginning of each budget session our town manager shows us a graph showing the cost of services rising, our revenue rising but not as fast and at a certain point they’re going to intersect and we’re going to face a deficit. I feel a responsibility to provide funding for town staff to follow through on community priorities.”

Ultimately the conversation came down to one’s point of view on taxes in general.

SPET began in 1985 and has been continually collected every year since 1993 until April 1, when the tax’s projects were fully funded.

Stanford argued that 6 percent is now normal for Teton County and the tax is the best way to take advantage of the tourism industry.

Culver said that despite the fact that roughly 50 percent to 70 percent of the 1 percent sales tax revenue is levied from tourists, taxes affect 100 percent of the population 100 percent of the time and adding new taxes will most affect the least among us.

On election day three polling stations will be open for Teton County voters — Teton County Library, Old Wilson Schoolhouse Community Center and the rec center. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Each proposition on the ballot will be decided based on simple majority. A bubble not filled in will not have any effect on the outcome.

The tax brings in $10 million to $12 million per year. If all 11 proposals pass, this SPET would remain in effect for about seven years.