On February 1st, 2016, Teton County commissioners and Jackson town councilors voted to approve asking November 8th voters the question of whether or not there should be a sixth penny of general revenue sales tax. Since 1990 or so, Teton County voters have voted every two or four years for a sixth penny of sales tax for specific purposes (example here) such as multi-use pathways, public facility upgrades and workforce housing. This year the choice is whether the sixth penny should be in the form of general revenue. I voted in favor of putting the question on the ballot to let voters decide. However the final resolution describing how the funds would be spent left out conservation. Are we trying to sell the community a cherry pie without the cherries?
The additional revenue is meant to address community priorities outlined in the Teton County Comprehensive Plan, the community’s guiding vision document. There are three community priorities discussed in the plan: to preserve and protect the areas ecosystem (conservation), to protect the community’s character and vitality by housing 65 percent of the local workforce in Teton county, and to reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled to avoid widening roads traversing the county. Alas, the final resolution on how to direct the spending of the revenues included the latter two only, not even leaving a placeholder for conservation. I abstained from the vote.
The government should not force citizens to pay taxes unless the increase in public welfare through the provision of the goods and services the revenue enables is measurable and substantial. There are certain goods and services clearly best provided by government—public safety, an impartial judicial system, and defense, for example.
In Teton County protecting the environment, housing, and transportation exhibit credible market failures that decrease community welfare. Development that doesn’t consider costs to wildlife and wildlife habitat threatens a sustainable tourist-based economy. A lack of transportation alternatives and key infrastructure threatens our ability to transit the county to receive medical attention, conduct commerce, or run errands. A lack of housing affordable to the middle class erodes a demographic structure sufficient to provide core services and support the needs of a thriving community.
To ensure measurable community benefit, projects funded by the revenue should follow the private sector’s lead. The Housing Action Plan calls for the private sector to lead efforts to deliver housing. The Integrated Transportation Plan targets transit and efforts to reduce congestion to match where the private sector delivers housing. If the spending resolution had included conservation, a private sector task force comprised of conservation experts and federal and state wildlife officials could identify how best to synchronize with the private sector and optimize wildlife habitat and open space preservation.
In a nutshell, the role of the Community Priorities Fund is to mitigate fundamental threats to the overall community welfare where the private sector has consistently failed. While housing and transportation suffer from market failures, at least they have lobbyists. Wildlife don’t. And most certainly the market will not fully account for them in the long run without help from the public sector. Indeed our Community Priority pie seems to be missing its cherries.