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Community Priorities don’t Stop at Housing and Transportation

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.

Population Growth, Ambulance Calls and the Birthday Problem

Recently I heard that there had been three simultaneous emergency service calls on one night, straining the capacity of our EMS that is staffed in part with volunteers. This got me thinking: given our population now, what are the odds of three simultaneous emergency service calls? And, perhaps more importantly, how fast would this probability increase as our population increases? The more often multiple emergencies occur at the same time, the more the capacity of fire and EMS needs to increase in order to avoid delays in response to any one of those incidents. It turns out we go from a state of a low probability of simultaneous incidents to one of high probability faster than our population grows.

Investigating this question requires a foray into the world of probability. To simplify, a good first step is to recall a standard exercise in most intro to probability courses: the birthday problem. The basic problem is, given a group of people at a party, what is the probability at least two of them have the same birthday? Assume leap years are excluded and all 365 days are equally likely. I had to look back at a lecture with the answer that I saw in a MOOC, Harvard’s Statistics 110, taught by Joe Blitzstein.

By the pigeon hole principal the probability reaches 100% when you have 365 people. Most people are surprised to learn, however, that there’s a greater than 50% probability with only 23 people in a room, and the probability reaches 99.9% with only 70 people in the room.

The formula to find the probability of three birthdays falling on the same day is more complicated, but there’s a way of approximating a solution using a probability distribution known as the Poison distribution. With 30 people in a room, there’s approximately a 3% probability of three birthdays occurring on the same day. With 100 people, the probability is over 70%. So as the “population” in the room roughly triples, a situation analogous to Teton County over the past 30 years, the probability of three random birthdays falling on the same day goes up by more than 20 times. At some point Teton County, by the pigeon hole principle, will have a 100% probability of having multiple triple-call scenarios. This level of population might be well into our future. Note, however, that the probability of simultaneous three-call scenarios grows faster than our population grows until we are over a 95% probability.

So far we haven’t answered the question, “What’s the probability in Teton County of three simultaneous emergency calls?” That’s a far more difficult one, especially given how our population fluctuates during the year. However this does point out that we should expect our need for fire and EMS services to grow faster than our population. How is the subject of future blogs.

Protecting Wildlife in Practice

Moose, deer, elk, sometimes one of our shy local carnivores, sometimes a hard-to-photograph bird—it’s hard to visit Facebook without seeing wildlife through the lens of a wildlife fan or photographer, amateur and professional alike. Clearly we find huge value in having wildlife around and being able to view it.

Can we measure this value? Or, perhaps, why would we need to? We can, to a large degree measure wildlife’s value. And we need to because we as a community have a right to protect that value—it’s part of protecting our welfare. The more clearly we define that value, the easier it is to protect it, thereby protecting wildlife.

So how do we go about understanding the value of wildlife? This website provides a brief background. Facebook posts reflect wildlife’s aesthetic value—it’s beauty and our appreciation of that beauty. To hunters, fisherman and photographers wildlife also has recreation value. To scientists and wildlife biologists wildlife also has biological and scientific value—That is its contribution to the ecosystem. Finally, people from all walks of life recognize the intrinsic value of wildlife, the satisfaction we get from just knowing that it exists.

We love our wildlife. Yet we often imperil its existence because we also value private rights to act in individual ways that more immediately enhance our own welfare. A simple example is driving. We earn the right to drive, and exercising that right provides benefits. But all of us combined, by exercising that private right, kill on average about 200 large ungulates a year on roads in Teton County.

We enshrine our right to protect the value of wildlife through planning and zoning. Here in Teton County, Wyoming we have, to a very large extent. Our 2012 Comprehensive Plan puts the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat as the first of our three broad common values. Moving forward, we need to make sure regulations and standards do a good job defining the boundary within which we can exercise our private rights with a great degree of freedom, but beyond which our community gets to exercise its right to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Because in the end, we all derive value, in some way, from wildlife.

This Ain’t Housing

Housing? This ain’t it. Did you know that in a recent survey 2% of Teton County residents indicated they were camping?

The Western Greater Yellowstone Regional Housing Needs Assessment just came out. It contains valuable data on the state of our housing situation. It has some suggestions. And it takes the long view.

First, the facts for Teton County:

• Restricted housing units: 1,488 out of 13,300.
• Seasonal and second home units: 3,978.
• Rental units needed to stabilize rents at existing levels: 300.
• Ownership units needed to meet demand over next 5 years: 900.
• Median income, 4-person household: $96,800.
• Median single-family home listing price, July, 2014: $2.1 million.

Now the fix. These are some suggestions from the study for how to meet our goal of housing 65% of our workforce:

1. Establish a dedicated revenue source for housing, be it a tax or fee, optimally shared by visitors who benefit from the services provided by our workers.
2. Create a housing fund that pools revenues from existing exaction and mitigation requirements.
3. Require that accessory units be rented long-term and enforce requirement.
4. Revise the existing regulations to:

  • Increase consistency between town and county requirements.
  • Base exactions on housing demand created to account for the greater demand generated by larger homes.
  • Simplify fee-calculation methodology into per-employee and per-square-foot amounts.
  • Modify commercial mitigation requirements to account for total employment and simplify the requirements with fewer use categories.
  • Encourage voluntary real estate transfer assessments.
  • Assist developers who are building workforce-targeted market housing with waivers while assessing appropriate exactions when existing workforce housing is redeveloped into market housing.
  • Codify a process for crediting affordable housing units created before they are required or that are beyond the number required.
  • We should also have a central authority to coordinate the efforts of county, town and our three hard-working and dedicated housing organizations, the Teton County Housing Authority, the Jackson Hole Housing Trust, and Teton Area Habitat for Humanity.

    Most importantly of all, the study’s authors take a long-term view. They point out that the more and faster we grow, especially in the second home sector and in the lodging and dining sectors, the more pressure we put on our tight housing resources. Growth management is the one an overarching way to achieve our vision in the long run.

    I ask for your vote to push forward real housing solutions. Thank you.

    Leadership for Teton County

    We’d been up since 0-dark thirty, plodding upwards. It was dark except for the first gray light of dawn lipping the Sleeping Indian. It was cold—bleak, early winter cold. Our group stopped and dropped, sitting dejectedly on their packs. Communications specialists headed to the Mideast to hide equipment on mountain tops, they had hired us to introduce them to the hardship of mountain travel. And they were getting their money’s worth.

    “These guys are whipped,” said the other guide, “I think we should we call it.”
    I checked in with everyone, asked how they felt, assessed the situation. “Let’s not,” I said. I looked at the group. “No one feels good at this time of day. Our bodies, our brains, nothing is awake yet. Let’s give it a go for fifteen minutes, half an hour, see how we feel once the sun comes up.” We got up, shouldered packs, trudged on. The sun edged over the horizon. Our pace steadied; dejection turned to determination. Several hours later we summited. A brief act of leadership had turned the tide.

    As it is with guiding, so too with being a commissioner—leadership matters—especially now as we navigate tough tradeoffs on almost every issue.
    On the one hand we have open space and ranch land, abundant wildlife and rich habitat, and a plethora of diverse cultural events and opportunities. We are the place to be, the “Fabled Montropolis.”

    On the other hand: Roads are congested. Housing is tight, expensive and restricted. Certain developments can threaten our wildlife and wildlife habitats. New challenges, as well as new opportunities, require fresh leadership.

    The late Warren Bennis, a well-known leadership guru, said that leaders have integrity—they don’t lie to themselves. They have curiosity—they wonder about everything. And they have daring—they try new things (Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader).

    Furthermore, leaders are not managers. “Managers are people who like to do things right….. Leaders are people who do the right thing. Managers have their eye on the bottom line. Leaders have their eye on the horizon.” (Economist, August 9th, 2014)

    Eighteen years of guiding, six years of service on our planning commission, a background in economics, and 40 years of observation and thought on our community have honed these leadership qualities in me. I look forward to serving as your leader on the county commission, to taking the long view and protecting our values, our people and the place we love.

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