Whose future are we headed toward?

If left to their own devices, the well-intentioned folks running the town and county have shown they are incapable of slowing, or even recognizing, the out-of-control growth path we are on. Worse, if given the funds, they appear more than eager to rush hurtling toward Jackson Hole’s Brave New World.

It’s a future that former News&Guide columnist Todd Wilkinson said at the 6th Annual Wildlife Symposium will turn Jackson into Salt Lake City in less than 50 years at our current rate of growth.

It’s a future that routinely arrives sooner than our community can plan for it. An annual indicator report released this spring verified we’ve already hit and exceeded the 5% Growth Management Plan benchmark that triggers a revision of our Comp Plan. Instead, it was decided we’ll postpone another year to give time for local government to catch up with growth.

Meanwhile, the county still hasn’t addressed the most important part of its land development regulations: the Natural Resource Overlay (NRO). Similarly, the town has made little progress toward its implementation of the 2012 Comp Plan. The most vital aspect town leaders could and should address is the affordable housing mitigation rate. As gigantic new hotels sprout up in town, all local electeds can do is complain the mitigation rates are too low and their hands are tied.

Yet the town and county have found plenty of time to tackle other “important” things like trying to figure out how many millions of dollars it will take to get a bike path over Teton Pass. Or wasting weeks on the novelty of declaring Jackson a ‘sanctuary city’ by resolution.

In fact, the last thing the town managed to do to update the LDRs is to put in place zoning for strip clubs in Jackson’s Business Park zone.

Clearly, this whole growth thing is catching our electeds by surprise.

 

Since 2012, jobs growth is up 17%, residential growth is up 5.5%, commercial is up 4%, and lodging has increased 1.5%. Seasonal population is up by at least 90%, and more square feet of second homes has been built than workforce housing. We are creating jobs far faster than we can fill them.

We are headed in the wrong direction. Our roads are clogged, the wastewater treatment facility is close to maxed out, and the town is so full we are considering emergency camping in public parking lots that were built to address the serious lack of parking on our packed city streets.

Faced with these impending thunderheads of doom, our elected leaders have not only failed to cull a bloated list of SPET propositions, but they’ve actively campaigned for all $68.5 million worth of the taxes. Many of these SPET items will simply encourage more growth and accelerate how quickly we get to their vision of a better future.

Are these SPET items simply catching services up with growth, as our elected officials claim? Or are they examples of the institutional growth that has been one of the very causes of our overcrowding? It’s an urban spiral. More housing creates more need, which creates more building, which creates more housing need again. That’s a growth agenda that serves to increase headaches for us, sales tax revenue for government.

Remember when our elected officials claimed last fall’s general sales tax hike was not an increase in taxes because SPET would be going away? SPET not only didn’t go away but it’s back bigger than ever with 10 items that are mostly wants not needs. It’s a wish list so big, that if a true emergency (think Budge slide) comes along anytime within the next six years, we will be looking at a 7th cent of tax to add to SPET. Meanwhile our electeds are looking into an 8th cent of additional tax if they can convince state lawmakers to approve it.

It’s time to take back control of our community and steer it toward a more livable future. Somebody has to.

Big, bad bus: START should stop

SHJH START stop

Big, bad bus: START needs to stop

Take a quick glance at the 2017 SPET proposals. One thing jumps out. START Bus has three of the 10 asks, tying up nearly half the record-setting $68.6M in projects on the ballot. At $30,130,000, this would be the total SPET ballot in most years.

And it’s hardly surprising. This agency has been burning money for more than a decade. Public subsidies have kept START afloat—to the tune of $60 million over the last 10 years. Every year taxpayers bear the burden of bailing out the bus, forking over $3 million, annually.

And it’s getting worse. Operating costs are expected to go up, again, next fiscal year by $491,000 (a 15% jump). Conservative estimates say START will lose another $5.4M in 2008.

But instead of belt-tightening and trying to figure out how they can stop the bleeding, START is stomping on the gas, pedal to the metal. They want new buses (they have about 30 now). They want housing for their administrators, mechanics and drivers. They want more bus storage space and a bigger maintenance facility, even after building their current $17M space. Their master plan calls for another $30 million in upgrades to their Karns Meadow bus barn.

These numbers are eye-popping; and there’s more.

The Integrated Transit Plan (ITP) calls for a doubling of ridership by 2024, and a doubling again of that by 2035. Lofty goals for a mass transit system that has stalled on ridership numbers since 2008. The plan also calls for START’s fleet to grow to 60 buses by 2024, and 120 buses by the year 2035.

START cannot afford to run the buses they have now. How will they ever fuel and hire drivers for 120 buses? Assuming they can find the money to purchase that many.

Are these targets attainable? The former START director didn’t think so. He’s no longer with the agency.

START’s aggressive spending spree has already walloped taxpayer’s right in wallet. The bussing business anticipates losing $8.1 million a year by 2024. They admit they’ll likely be running $18 million in the red by 2035.

And for what? It is estimated that public transit in Teton County accounts for 1% of all trips made in the valley. At best, the agency hopes to grow that number to 3% by 2024. So, the bus is not removing cars from the road. In fact, at least one industry expert says the idea buses are a solution to gridlock and traffic jams is foolhardy.

“As far as buses taking anybody off the road, that’s a real mythical notion,” Wendell Cox said. Cox is a respected urban planner and leading expert in American mass transit. Of Jackson Hole, Cox added, “You will probably not find a larger transit system for a community your size.”

Mass transit only really works when it’s transporting masses—and Jackson Hole simply isn’t there…yet. We don’t have the people, the roads, or the routes. But folding a monstrous bus system with a ballooning budget into a hyper-growth agenda seems to be our electeds’ plan toward a metropolitan utopia.

Reactions to SPET’s pro-growth agenda

Two letters to the editor in today’s (April 12) News&Guide were encouraging.

One from Laurie Genzer contemplates the notion we might be at carrying capacity now:

 

Maxed out

Is local government really looking out for us?

Our roadways are maxed out; our sewage plant is getting there; we’ve got benzene in our water, yet government is quiet, unconcerned.

Their focus is more growth, more tax revenue, perks for the few while they ignore the majority.

They’re blind to the problems of growth: overcrowding, empty buses, traffic jams …

Every town and county has its carrying capacity. There are limits to growth. What is the carrying capacity of Jackson Hole? Government has been asked that, and they ignore it. They don’t want to know.

When you’re at capacity, more isn’t better. And we, as a community, are about full up. Look around, you see it everywhere. You feel it when you’re stuck in traffic. We need to stop and take a breather.

What can we do as individuals? How can we send a signal? You do it at the voting booth. Say no to nonessential SPET items. Say no to nonessential spending.

Your vote on May 2 matters, if you make it matter.

There’s only one SPET item that could be essential: the fire stations. It’s No. 9 on the ballot. None of the other items arereally urgent. Life will
go on just fine without them.

Until local government looks at the problems of growth, real problems we all face, just say no in the voting booth.

Make your voice heard.

Laurie Genzer Jackson

 

The other, from Julia Heileson, brings up numerous good points we should all be thinking about:

 

Impacts of growth

By loading up the SPET ballot with so many projects the electeds have done us a big favor by highlighting just how much growth is projected for the valley. The growth-inducing impact of these projects is mind-boggling. They all mean more employees and some more users as well, in turn requiring more teachers, doctors, schoolrooms, stores, roads and parking spaces, plus government staff to oversee it all. This on top of the recent Hotel Jackson, the new four-story Marriott, the monstrous expansion proposed for Snow King and the huge recreation complex contemplated on South 89. Yet every week the paper features at least one story highlighting the severity of the housing shortage. A new community college would be especially problematic. How would the students and teachers be housed? Jackson simply cannot be all things to all people. The valley is in serious danger of losing forever the homey Western ambiance, beautiful open spaces and wildlife environment that have defined it for so long.

Julia Heileson Jackson

Sacrificing what we love on the altar of affordable housing

In the immortal words of former county commissioner Hank Phibbs, “You shouldn’t sacrifice the things we love about this valley—conservation, wildlife, open space—on the altar of affordable housing.”

What a statement.

The need for housing in Jackson Hole is real. Most all of us have been there. But should government be spending your money building homes for some who may have arrived to the valley only recently, and who may have more financial means available to them than the hardworking folks trying to pay their own mortgages right now?

The burden of providing more affordable housing options lies squarely with the businesses, institutions, and government agencies that need these employees. When government meddles in private sector issues, the result is usually an expensive mess. Taxpayer money to purchase land and build affordable housing has been squandered by a housing agency now defunct. Public-private partnerships tread dodgy ground. Who gets a house? Who doesn’t? Who is more important to the community—a teacher, an ambulance driver, a planning department employee?

Transportation is a huge issue as well. Our streets and highways are clogged. Even in the offseason. Is the solution simply paving—more roads, wider roads—while we continue to mow down our precious wildlife?

Can we not collectively acknowledge Jackson Hole likely has a carrying capacity, and we might be at it now? We cannot preserve the unparalleled beauty and charm of this community, and continue to build and build. More hotel beds, more condos, more banks, more grocery stores, more schools—more everything is strangling this valley with uncontrolled growth.

Save Historic Jackson Hole has sometimes garnered a reputation as an organization that merely says “no” to everything. That we offer no solutions. Maybe there are no viable solutions—we hope and trust our elected leaders will continue to explore them—but we recognize what isn’t an answer. Building and spending our way out of housing and transportation challenges is shortsighted and foolhardy.

Taxing and spending $70 million in SPET initiatives won’t house everyone who wants to live here and it won’t get vehicles off our roads. It won’t come close. We can’t build houses and buy buses fast enough to accommodate everyone that wants to live here. And we certainly shouldn’t be depending on government to do it for us.

SHJH does not say no to development. We say yes to wildlife. Yes, to protecting our irreplaceable natural resources. Yes, to maintaining a quality of life that attracted us all here to begin with.

 

Jake Nichols, executive director of Save Historic Jackson Hole

Vet the SPET

When you head to the polls May 2 (earlier for absentee voters) please consider the following:

 

More START Buses for $6,500,000

If the town and county had unlimited money (sometimes it seems that’s exactly how they operate) they would not solve our traffic woes with buses. They could buy 1 or 1,000 new buses. They still need someone to ride them. Busses carry only 1% of the trips after 4-decades of operation. By their own figures, in the best-case scenario START Bus might get 3% of our traffic off the roads in 10 years. And this agency’s budget is already hemorrhages massive amounts of wasted money yearly. START is not a transportation solution!

 

Employee housing at START for $8,300,000

The good news? Town and county is taking care of their own, like local employers should be doing, and realizing we have a housing shortage. The bad news? As with most building in Jackson Hole—especially when a bloated, inefficient government gets involved—the cost for each unit (24 rentals total) is astronomical. Given that the town already owns the land it’s hard to fathom how even government officials can blow $345,833 per unit in building apartments. That’s more than even The Grove. And these units aren’t restricted to first responders or critical community needs. It’s a bad program.

 

START bus storage and fleet maintenance facility for $15,330,000

Beginning to see a theme here? START, START, START. The mass transit agency should be scaling back and trying to figure out a way to be more sustainable, fares only pay 15% of the cost. Our taxes pay 85%. Instead of scaling back, they expect SPET to be their Golden Goose while promising they are the solution to our traffic problems. START is a non-solution waste of money.

 

Redmond-Hall rental project for $4,050,000

Wait, didn’t the town and county already give the Trust $4.05M plus the land they’re on to build their 26 units? Yep, and they want it back. And isn’t the Trust fully funded for this development and moving forward with construction next month? Yep. So why are we being asked to pay more taxes for it? Maybe they want the money back so they can prime the pump yet again and start another project voters never approved.

 

CWC Jackson campus for $3,820,000

Local hotels and restaurants love this idea. To be able to handpick their workforce from a local college is very attractive. A college campus in Jackson, however, will be a huge job generator and make the housing crisis worse. These people will need a place to live, a place to shop for groceries, a school to put their kids in, etc. Don’t make our overcrowding worse.

 

Town sidewalks for $1,500,000

The town still has money left over from sidewalk SPETs in 2008 ($1M), 2010 ($1M), 2014 ($1M) and they’re back again. Isn’t building sidewalks something town governments are supposed to take care of at the most basic level? This is not a SPET.

 

Fire station renovation at Jackson and Hoback for $6,800,000

We need to support our first responders. This is what SPET is for!

 

What’s missing says a lot

What voters won’t see on the ballot is money for wildlife. No wildlife crossings, no fund for habitat improvement or protection. Nothing that would indicate our elected officials remember wildlife, conservation and open spaces is the number one concern and desire of its constituents. Local politicians should be embarrassed.

Remember, you can vote for none or all of the SPET items. If even one initiative passes, your sales tax will remain at 6%. Vote all down and sales tax drops to 5% this summer. Pass all and it will take at least 10 years to pay for everything. Choose carefully.

 

Letter to the Editor nails it

Wow, did Kent Fiske every hit it on the head with his letter to the editor in the March 22 weekly News&Guide.

Fiske captures a lot of what Save Historic Jackson Hole has been saying recently. As we head to the polls May 2 for a special SPET election, let’s all think long and hard about what projects deserve our hard-earned tax money.

Fisk’s letter to the editor:

Major disconnect
More, more, please sir, may I have some more? More traffic, more crowds, more congestion at trails and trailheads, more roadkill, more taxes?
There seems to be a major disconnect between what the voters explicitly vote for and the way our elected officials are trying to address community problems. They are asking us to pay more for things that encourage growth. I’m not against growth by any means, but growth should increase the quality of life for everyone in the community, not just a few investors. Growth should make the community better, rather than just making for more community.
With growth it should be easier to find a place to live.
With growth taxes per person should go down because of the increased tax base. With proper growth traffic should decrease since people can structure life to live closer to work and there would be less back and forth and round about.
Growth should provide greater diversity opportunities for recreational and cultural resources.
And with more growth we need greater protection for wildlife and its habitat.
Who would not want this? But if we aren’t meeting criteria for proper growth, what are we doing wrong? Why are we letting others take advantage of us and requiring us to pay for their impacts?
—Kent Fiske (Jackson)

 

START Bus debunked

We enjoyed the common sense of Dick Aurelio regarding START Bus.

This Guest Shot was printed March 1, 2017.

O P I N I O N

Look at numbers before funding START

While a firm believer in public transportation, and in particular improving service to Victor, Driggs and Alpine to ease the housing shortage and reduce traffic in town, I think it is time to take a step back and see real progress with START before asking for more money as part of the upcoming special purpose excise tax vote.

START ridership has gone up since 2002, but it peaked and has remained flat since 2008. Yet we have spent over $60 million since then with no noticeable improvement in ridership, despite continued increases in operating costs. Furthermore, last year the Integrated Transportation Plan concluded that it would only improve at a rate of 1 or 2 percent a year over the next 10 years.

Given the importance of the other projects being considered, I recommend the START board and town and county electeds take a deep dive into the START financials to determine how to make additional operational improvements and demonstrating tangible results before throwing more money at START without the data to justify that spending.

With so many other worthy projects being considered, starting with affordable housing, and so little money available under SPET, $12 million a year, I’d like to share my thoughts on how to trim the START request, without affecting the objective of more and better public transportation.

After a review of the ITP, financials, fleet and ridership, here are some data points: 1. Ridership has been flat for the last eight years at approximately950,000, with half of that in the January to March quarter on the Teton Village route.

2. Three-quarters of the START revenue is taxpayerfunded at approximately $3 million a year.

3. Costs are projected to increase $491,000 (15 percent) in fiscal year ’17 over FY ’16 with the same level of service. Why?

4. None of the money spent on capital improvements (new buses, bus barn) that have been made over the last eight years are reflected on the balance sheet or in the profit and loss report. Had they been per GAP accounting, the taxpayer “cost of running START” would be more than double the $3 million per year.

5. Twenty-seven buses in the fleet, 11 sit idle at all times. All buses have less than 300,000 miles on them, life expectancy is typically 500,000.

Suggestions: A. Drop additional bus barn expansion from SPET and instead convert existing bus barn space into a maintenance facility. If a few buses sit outside overnight it will not affect life expectancy as they are designed to operate in harsh environments. This can be done out of existing town/county budget. B. Do add additional buses to the Alpine and Driggs routes for the reasons noted above, but start out by using existing excess bus capacity or bus rental to prove ridership will in fact increase before buying more buses. Note: Rafting buses are parked all over town, and I’m sure the owners would gladly rent them to START in the winter to test market additional service.

C. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort should pay its fair share of Teton Village route as half of total ridership is resort focused.

Cowboy math: Total taxpayer funding of START over last 10 years is approximately $60 million, and ridership is at 1 million a year. Cost to taxpayers is $6 each time a rider gets on a bus. Since half of that is to the Village in the first quarter of the year, that cost is $3 million a year. Richard Aurelio first skied in Jackson in 1967 and was finally able to move back in 2002. He was previously chairman and CEO of Varian Semiconductor Associates and board member of several public and private companies, with a background in engineering and finance. Guest Shots represent solely the opinion of the author.

GUEST SHOT

Richard Aurelio

Final meeting on SPET Monday, Feb. 26

As town and county leaders near the deadline for finalizing a SPET ballot of wishlist items they think will be most palatable at the polls in May, the total dollar amount hasn’t shrunk much…if at all. The joint board is still at $88 million in proposed taxes with less than 3 days to make final cuts. Maybe there won’t be any more whittling. Maybe our electeds will be fine with asking us citizens to pay $88 million in taxes this spring.

How will you vote?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judd Grossman’s letter to the Planet editors was informative.