Budge Slide: questions remain

Judd Grossman, candidate for town council, wrote the following on his Facebook page. We reprint here only because we at Save Historic Jackson Hole have been asking ourselves the same questions.


Regarding the Budge Slide, Town needs to do a better job of answering the following questions:

  • Who’s fault is the slide?
  • Do we understand what went wrong and have we taken steps to make sure that the errors aren’t being repeated?
  • Why should the taxpayers foot the bill?
  • If the taxpayers pay up front to fix the slide will Town be able to clawback the money once the courts decide who is liable?
  • Is the Town legal team aggressively fighting for the taxpayer’s interests?
  • What are the real odds of the slide creating catastrophic damage to Broadway?
Judd Grossman
Judd Grossman

Often public safety is used as an unassailable argument for government initiatives. Public safety is a core government responsibility, but needs to be tempered with return on investment based on real actuarial math, and a careful analysis of who is actually liable for the remediation. I’m reminded of the Great Recession bank bail out where the taxpayers were cajoled into bailing out the private sector in the name of impending economic disaster.

The SPET ballot process is the perfect venue for these concerns to be discussed and resolved. Which begs the question: Why are the Town and County killing SPET after August, and replacing it with their own unaccountable, blank check, money grab in the form of a General Excise Tax Increase? Are they expecting that we won’t have any more unexpected (or preplanned) big ticket capital expenses in the future?

JIM dandy meeting

WE WERE THERE…

TCHAOur electeds officially formed a new regional housing authority to be run jointly by the town and county. Community opposition ran the gamut from staunch opposition to subsidized housing to skepticism about how the housing authority has operated to date.

Commissioner Mark Newcomb and councilor Bob Lenz were not on board with the vote. They both questioned why government wanted to be so involved with housing people.

One quote that jumped out at us came from Mayor Sara Flitner. While many in the audience and many in the valley—IF they were inclined to accept government playing a role in subsidized housing—believe affordable housing should be tailored to the truly needy and low-income members of our community, Flitner said this:

“…I’m more concerned about highly paid people like teachers and an attorney I know who can’t afford a home here. Right now, even a $100,000 salary and a bottomless work ethic can’t guarantee you a roof over your head in this community.”

Do you want to tax yourself to pay for a lawyer’s house in Jackson?

walgreens

Town and county leaders also voted to ask you for $6 million to fix the Budge landslide. This, despite public comment in opposition and polls showing a majority of taxpayers don’t like the idea of having to bail out Walgreens and the town’s poor decision to allow the major pharmacy chain to carve into an unstable hillside.

“Who signed off on this?” asked concerned citizen Pam Walton at the meeting.

She never got an answer.

 

Read more…

Holding back a hill with a buttress of cash

walgreens“What have we been waiting for?” asked Bob Lenz.

The councilman’s question was directed at administrator Bob McLaurin regarding Budge landslide mitigation that appears to have stagnated for the past two years at “police taping” the affected area until tax revenues come to the rescue.

While waiting on Walgreens executives to offer their solutions (and, more importantly, their financial contribution) town authorities have begun to rebrand the event in the attempt to sway public sentiment headed into this year’s election cycle. One way or another, voters will be asked to pay for a fix on Budge, whether it’s called the West Broadway Landslide or the “Walgreens Waterloo.”

The council was tasked at last Monday’s regular meeting to amend contracts with Nelson Engineering and Landslide Technology that would allow both construction companies to begin Phase II final design work on the west portion of the slide while Walgreens reps decide whether or not they want to fix their half. The price tag comes to $354,351 ($205,307 to Nelson Engineering; $149,044 to Landslide Technology).

“We’ve been waiting on acquisition of dirt,” McLaurin responded to Lenz’s question. He went on to explain sheer keys and buttresses and a conceptual design that would hopefully “shake hands” with what Walgreens is thinking they will do with their east section.

When asked by civic leaders whether anything they approved now is contingent on money coming in via a special tax, McLaurin emphasized again this was work that must be done sooner or later. Preferably sooner.

“The work has to be done,” McLaurin said. “SPET is not about: ‘Are we going to do this?’ Not doing it is not an option. We cannot risk a catastrophic failure of the hillside. It’s about, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’”

Councilman Jim Stanford railed against miscommunication circulating in the community that has painted the oozing calamity as “Walgreens’ fault” or “the town’s problem.”

“This whole community conversation has been about assigning blame,” Stanford complained. “We’ve moved past the blame game. This is too complex and partly the reason why we came to a settlement. There may be litigation between other parties still to come but we need to step away and move toward stabilizing a problem that threatens public infrastructure on Budge. And we are not bailing out any private entity.”

Public Works director Larry Pardee promised any public money raised would be spent on water and sewer remediation, not on shoring up Walgreens’ parking lot. “Even if Walgreens wasn’t there we would be doing the exact same thing,” he said.

With Lenz still advising the town wait on more feedback from engineers, Don Frank was once again “full steam ahead” on “wrestling to the ground” a potential solution for the slide.“I respectfully encourage the council to approve the immediate approval of this. We are fooling ourselves if we think this is a slow emergency,” he said.

Frank suggested town leaders perhaps seek out a firm with more experience in dealing with landslides as the town considered an RFQ (request for qualifications) for a construction manager at risk (CMAR).

Frank said, “I don’t know a firm in western Wyoming that has actually mitigated a landslide. We should find a firm that specializes in landslides. This is not an operation suitable for someone to cut their teeth on.”

Pardee assured Frank they had received interest from a “very large” firm that has worked on Togwotee Pass, for instance.

As an aside, Pardee also stated that neither the current freeze-thaw cycle nor recent earthquake activity had not made any impact on the slide, according to four data points they had studied so far.

The town council voted 3-1 to move ahead with the RFQ process for a CMAR, as well as bid awards to Nelson Engineering and Landslide Technology with Lenz in opposition. Lenz said he was willing to “play the game” but wanted to see all the cards on the table first.

No new taxes

This one should fit right in the wheelhouse of the local Tea Party.

The people have spoken.
The people have spoken.

A News&Guide poll shows the community is very particular about what we are willing to bear the burden of. We work hard for our money, and to have government come asking for more of it in order to staff a monster Housing Authority department/agency AND to fix Budge slide might be pushing the envelope a bit, no?

More than 83% of respondents said this is a town problem. They need to figure out what went wrong and who did what. Only 8.9% want to see the costs to fix the slide covered by a special purpose tax (SPET). Eight percent think WYDOT should step up (Good luck with that; their budget is tapped out).

Not budging a bit

No one is denying Budge slide is a potential public safety issue. We feel for the families and local businesses that have suffered for two years now. But why is no one from the town looking into what went wrong?

There are only two ways to interpret the issue. Either, as some town officials have declared, we have a precarious butte with a 60-year history of eroding and something was bound to go wrong. Or town engineers were overly optimistic (following town electeds’ over eagerness) to get Walgreens in Jackson. Then there was the 200,000-gallon water leak from a private residence atop the butte.

Is this mess yours to pay for?
Is this mess yours to pay for?

If the butte had a history of geological activity and unstable behavior, why on earth would development be allowed that plopped a new Walgreens at its base? A project that required extensive grading and carving into the hill. If the slide was simply an Act of God that could not be foreseen, it sure seemed to coincide in a perfectly timely manner with the addition of the pharmacy store carved into the hill’s toe.

Judging from the poll results, we think the community deserves some better answers. All we’ve seen so far from our town is a payoff to homeowners so they wouldn’t seek legal action—Bencor (Walgreens) did the same— and an urgent plea to “not play the blame game. Let’s not point fingers. Let’s look ahead to the fix,” say town staffers.

That’s not good enough. That’s irresponsible government. If they won’t investigate the possible causes, a current lawsuit in the works will bring everything into the light. Until then, it sure looks like we aren’t willing to foot the bill.