Jackson, WY – Halfway up the boot pack on Mt. Glory for a dawn patrol lap with two good friends, I stopped to catch my breath and realized this is why I love living here.
To my right, the early morning sun rose over the Gros Ventres, scorching the sky an indescribable pink. To my left lay nearly endless peaks and bowls, beckoning me to ski them when I had more than a few hours before work. Between the three of us, we knew nearly every person we saw in the parking lot and on the hike up, leaving us glowing with that sense of community you only find in a close-knit small town. Then there was the ski down. The snow wasn’t ideal, but any time you get to make 1,500 feet of turns with friends before you walk into the office, it’s a good day.
But one image from the hike up burrowed into my brain and wouldn’t let go. I had turned to look at the sunrise and instead saw a never-ending line of cars commuting over Teton Pass and up Snake River canyon, and rural development sprawling across our valley. While I shoved this negative image out of my brain for our lap, it kept sneaking back into my thoughts because it captures the core of the challenges facing our community.
Right now we’re dealing with a housing crisis that’s destroying our middle class and threatening the fabric of our community, transportation challenges that are tearing into our quality of life, rural development that is consuming the wildlife habitat and open spaces that define our valley, and more than 200 animals that are struck and killed on our roads every year.
It’s great our elected representatives have adopted plans to help address our housing and transportation challenges, are working on a plan to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and are poised to adopt updated rural land development regulations that will encourage the permanent protection of wildlife habitat and open space. These are important and necessary first steps in the right direction.
But these plans aren’t enough. If we’re serious about addressing the challenges we face, we must have the courage necessary to provide Teton County voters with the opportunity to fund these plans. Without consistent and predictable funding, these plans will not effect tangible change.
Here’s the problem: right now, our local government simply lacks the money necessary to deal with the tremendous challenges facing our community. Town and county leaders have repeatedly stated that it will be incredibly hard to accomplish our housing and transportation goals without a dedicated funding source for capital and operational expenditures.
Making matters worse, because of declining energy revenue and associated budget cuts at the state level, we are facing cuts to our local budget as we will likely receive less funding from the state. This means that unless we provide voters the opportunity to approve new revenue for the operation of our local government, we’re very likely facing cuts in the basic services we receive today. Imagine slower response times from our emergency responders. Consider decreased hours at our library and rec center. Think about the human consequences of cuts to the critical social services that support those most in need. It doesn’t have to be this way.
This is a choice about what type of community we want to be. We can be a community that keeps our middle class and maintains a close-knit small-town feel by making it possible for at least two thirds of people who work here to afford to live here. We can be a community that deals with our traffic congestion by providing people with choices through investments in transit, walking and bicycling. We can be a community with connected habitat where wildlife can safely cross the road. But only if we make the right choice.
Our elected representatives can lead us to a better future by letting our community choose to approve a package of capital investments funded through the specific purpose excise tax (SPET) and funding for operations and additional strategic capital projects through an increase in the general sales tax.
Specifically, our elected representatives should provide Teton County voters with the opportunity in November to approve a new, consistent and predictable funding source — like an increase in the general sales tax — to implement our county-approved plans to deal with our housing, transportation and habitat connectivity issues. In addition, in August they should provide voters with the opportunity to support a comprehensive list of capital investments appropriate for funding through SPET, like the implementation of our wildlife-crossings master plan, an expansion of the START maintenance facility and shovel-ready projects that will help hard-working families afford to live here.
Yes, it’s hard, even a little scary, to consider raising taxes. Here’s the thing — for decades, our community has shown time and time again that it’s willing to fund investments that address the challenges we face and improve our quality of life, and recent public opinion research shows Teton County voters would support this approach.
Even better, our local elected representatives have a long and proud history of fiscal discipline and spending our money wisely. They can build on this tradition of accountability by providing a detailed plan to voters about how they will spend new revenue (that includes some flexibility for strategic investments) and create a citizen oversight committee that provides our community with annual reports to ensure this plan is followed. Communities across America have proven the effectiveness of this tactic.
Look, it’s simple. If we are serious about addressing our housing, transportation and habitat connectivity challenges, and avoiding potential cuts to basic services, we need to approve both new general revenue and a package of associated capital investments funded through SPET.
Let’s support our elected representatives in providing us with this opportunity. PJH