County invests in staff in new budget
Rising property values mean more revenue pouring into Teton County coffers. County commissioners are planning to spend that added cash on more firefighters, a planner and a health inspector while also boosting salaries for all staff.
After weeks of combing through requests and grappling with tough decisions, commissioners have a draft budget of about $44.5 million in the general fund for fiscal year 2019-20, about a 3.5% increase over last year’s $43 million budget.
“The big change this year is personnel impacts,” County Clerk Sherry Daigle said, “because they just approved a big old whopping amount for salary increases, which also affects retirement, taxes and workers compensation.”
In 2018 state-mandated changes increased Teton County property valuations about 17%, netting more tax revenue for the county. Due to the escalating costs of real estate, property tax assessments in Teton County are up about 17% again this year, County Assessor Melissa Shinkle said, although that figure may change as assessments continue to be tweaked.
As the commissioners have so far opted not to change the county’s property tax rate over last year, County Treasurer Katie Smits most recently estimated that the increase in property taxes for next year will amount to almost $1.8 million more for the county’s general fund.
Much of that increase will go toward additional spending on staff. Included in the county commission’s proposed budget is about $1.4 million to raise all county salaries to 7.5% above the market rate. That’s supposed to help with recruiting and retaining employees amid Jackson Hole’s rising cost of living.
According to county Administrator Alyssa Watkins, the number of full-time equivalent employees at the county will increase by about 5.2 next year — including an environmental health specialist, three firefighters and another planner. Plus a few new part-time, seasonal or intern workers.
The environmental health specialist will spend half his time in the water testing lab, splitting the rest of the time between inspections and outreach and education for water testing, said Teton County Public Health Director Jodie Pond.
“We’re not meeting our statutory requirements, restaurants are not getting inspected as required by statute because of the lack of inspectors in our department,” Pond said.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen said he asked for additional Fire/EMS staff last year but was unsuccessful. Hansen said additional people will help with the department’s response to overlapping 911 calls, its “biggest challenge,” particularly three or more coming in at once.
“About every day we are in a position to be rushing, scrambling, paging our volunteers back, in doing everything we can to get that third call staffed,” Hansen said. “Sometimes it means there is a short delay in staffing that call. Sometimes it means there is a very considerable delay in staffing that call.”
Commissioners agreed to fund the positions.
“As a community, that’s what we’re here for, fundamentally protecting the health and welfare of the citizens,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said.
Other requests have not been approved, like a request for a second full-time staffer in the pathways department to assist with a growing workload, including ongoing maintenance needs and programming. Some commissioners favored the expense.
“The pathway system and multi- modal transportation demand is ever-increasing in our community, and I think it takes more than one person to handle all the demand,” Commissioner Greg Epstein said.
But it was ultimately decided to wait to develop the responsibilities for the position further, although about $25,000 is budgeted as a “placeholder” for a potential part-time or seasonal worker for pathways support.
Daigle pointed out that funding staff is a major investment as the costs will remain in future budgets.
“Those costs carry on and on and on,” Daigle said.
As Daigle and Smits work to finalize the Teton County budget, the proposed budget will be publicly advertised in this newspaper on June 12, and then commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget and vote on its final adoption at 9 a.m. June 25.