Tight town budget gets spotlight in mayoral race
Barron eyes extra sales tax; Lance would cut councilís health insurance.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 22, 2008
Candidates for mayor agree that the Town of Jackson will need to streamline its budget if it is going to remain in the black in the face of projected declines in sales tax.
However, the two differ on whether the town should try any new measures to raise revenue, with incumbent Mayor Mark Barron endorsing an extra cent of sales tax and challenger Mike Lance saying the town has exhausted all its options.
“I think the town has looked at just about everything they can do to raise revenue,” he said. “Government, by nature, likes to spend money. I, by my nature, would rather spend prudently and let the taxpayer keep as much as they can.”
Barron agreed that the town needs to remain fiscally conservative but said there was more than one way to balance a budget.
“Anytime you have a downturn in the national economy, and in this case the world economy, you have to look at spending,” he said. But there are two ways to get to the bottom line: raising revenue and decreasing expenditures – that is the two-pronged approach.”
Overall the town operating expenditures are down about 3 percent from $12.8 million in 2008 to $12.53 million in 2009.
Even with the reduction, the town is still about $145,000 over budget, something councilors could choose to address when they revisit the budget after the election. Sales tax funds about 65 percent of town government, and councilors had formulated this year’s budget assuming a modest 4 percent increase in sales tax revenues. Through August, town sales tax revenue was up about 9 percent, but officials do not expect that trend to continue and say the town could see declines in sales tax.
Lance said there is room to make cuts in the budget and he would like reductions to include money spent to provide health insurance to the mayor and council. He also pointed to $250,000 spent on wayfinding signs to help tourists navigate the valley as unneeded.
Barron agreed that the town council budget could be trimmed but said he would start with travel allowances given councilors to attend conferences on planning and local government.
“Council people going to planning conferences or smart growth conferences can be a good investment, but if the money is not there to support it, I imagine we would be cutting that budget,” he said.
Both men said spending on social services, which has outpaced increases in other areas of the budget, is still money well-spent. Funding for organizations like the Community Counseling Center, the Community Safety Network and VanVleck House had been reduced below 2007-08 levels in the current budget.
However, in June, councilors agreed to bring funding levels back to about $600,000 after a request by the Teton County Board of Commissioners. Barron and other councilors supported the request, noting that many of the organizations provide services that other municipalities would have to take on themselves.
“Hopefully for social services, their bottom line is to put themselves out of business, but that is not a reality,” Lance said. “There are people out there in need of service of some type, and it’s something we need to do.”
The town’s contribution to the Teton County Fire/EMS budget is increasing 8.8 percent to $1.16 million, but that figure does not include the funding for six paid firefighters requested by the department. The police budget is about $3.1 million, but councilors have asked Jackson Police Chief Dan Zivkovich to further reduce his budget by about $80,000.
Lance said he did not see opportunities to cut into police and fire department budgets and even supported additional funds requested by the fire department for paid staff members, something the council rejected in the current budget.
“Our volunteers are not as numerous as they have been in the past, and we still have a level of service we need to provide with that,” he said. “I don’t want to see us have to go to paid staff, but I am afraid we are going to have to support the volunteers in the near future.”
Barron said he would not want to sacrifice any level of service, but there were places to make cuts within the police and fire budgets.
“We have had discussions in public meetings to the fact that we may be up to two [officers] heavy in [the police] department, so that will be under review,” he said.
The town currently does not implement a property tax, but Barron said he would never vote for one.
“In spite of what is going on in the economy I would continue to oppose a town property tax,” he said.
Instead Barron pushed to allow citizens to vote on a whether to implement a seventh cent of sales tax.
“Visitors pay 60 percent of the sales tax in Teton County, and as an elected official I would be irresponsible if I didn’t support putting that on the ballot for voters to choose,” he said.
Lance said he did not favor levying additional sales tax but left a town property tax on the table, though it would be a last resort.
“I wouldn’t say I would never do it, but I would find it very hard given the drastic increases [in property taxes] we have had over the last five years or so,” he said.
Lance said he had not considered alternative funding sources such as a lodging tax or a real estate transfer tax – the latter still not permitted by the state.
“As far as other ways to find more money it’s not something I have really looked at,” he said.
Barron said almost all options should be available.
“I don’t think we can take anything off the table except the property tax,” he said.