‘Ask the Mayor’ With Jackson’s Hailey Morton Levinson

KHOL asks Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson about the town's budgeting process and local worker shortages.
Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson
KHOL launched a special monthly "Ask the Mayor" edition of the daily news brief with Jackson's Hailey Morton Levinson in March. (Courtesy of Hailey Morton Levinson)

by | May 31, 2021 | Housing, Politics & Policy

 

This is a special monthly edition of KHOL’s top of the hour news break with Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and station news director Kyle Mackie. Listen below for an extended version of their conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 

KYLE MACKIE: Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson, thank you so much for joining us today on KHOL.

HAILEY MORTON LEVINSON: Thank you for having me.

MACKIE: Let’s talk about the town budgeting process. The town has been in the thick of this, of budgeting for fiscal year 2022. Can you catch us up on where those conversations stand and what’s been going on?

MORTON LEVINSON: Yes. So, over the last probably month and a half, we have been reviewing the town budget as a council. And this is my ninth budget that I’m looking at, and I would say this is one of the more extensive reviews that we’ve had, which I think is great. We have two new councilors and then the other two councilors had only really gone through one normal budget cycle and one COVID budget cycle. So, I think it’s nice for all of us on the council kind of to have that, you know, re—repositioning, re-understanding of how the budget really works. And we go through it pretty methodically, each budget workshop that we’ve had, and those are all open to the public. We’ve done, I think, five now, and [we] go through different things like the general fund, our capital improvement projects fund, and drill down into each of those to see where we want to make changes, what some of the big picture things are for this year coming up and just etcetera. We’ve also had a number of meetings with the county as we have joint departments and joint things that we fund together. So, that’s been good, too.

I would say one of the big highlights for this year is adding in a number of full time employees—FTEs. And last year during COVID, it was right when we started doing the budget and everyone was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ So, we froze positions that were unfilled. We said, ‘We’re not adding any FTES’ and we cut the budget significantly. So, this year we’re kind of doing a makeup—we’re refilling those positions that weren’t filled and we’re looking back to departments that had requested FTEs in the past, some that need some this coming year and really focusing on giving town the staff and resources needed to perform the job for the community.

MACKIE: Besides the addition of those FTEs, what are other major investments or any changes that you’d like listeners to be aware of—priorities that the town is going to be focusing on in the coming year?

MORTON LEVINSON: You know, I mean, the FTEs really highlight kind of where some of those priorities are in the sense of looking at like a regional transportation director and potentially adding staff to the housing department. And so, it comes through in those priorities. Council also accepted the requests from health and human service organizations and then decided at this point to add additional moneys to a number of those organizations. And the budget process, we’re still in all these discussions—we formally adopt it June 21—so, we could change things between now and then. But I do feel that the health and human services one will stand and we will be investing just over $1 million dollars in our different local health and human service organizations. And like last year, it’s really important to council to do that because so much is falling on those groups and what little bit we can do to help them with their added workload and then also funding cuts that they’re seeing from the states is really important.

MACKIE: As part of the budgeting process, I’m sure the town is also talking about revenue generation, which is a huge priority. Can you speak to what kinds of potential, you know, opportunities for generating some new revenue are being talked about right now?

MORTON LEVINSON: Yes. So, our budget was presented to us with, you know, looking at our traditional forms of revenue, which is significantly sales tax. And over the last eight years that I’ve done the budget, we have looked at a 3%—anywhere from a 3-4.5% increase in that sales tax, which has come to fruition except for last year, and we’ve budgeted based on that. This year we are predicting that sales tax will come in higher and actually voted to reflect that in the budget as a 6% percent increase of year over year. And so, that’s not new revenue, but it is more revenue that we expect to take in. And that helps the whole balance-the-budget process and helps us project our five to 10 years out of how the budget will balance based on adding new FTEs or adding capital improvement projects or whatnot.

There is still an upcoming discussion, I think it’s on June 7, of property sales tax. That would be an additional revenue source. As of now, council has signaled that we want to talk about it and just have a better understanding. And it’s not required to make that decision during the budget for property tax. But obviously, we’re talking about it because it would come in as a revenue that then reflects in our budget.

MACKIE: And the expected higher revenue that you’re expecting from the sales tax, is that because of the town expecting just more visitors this year, larger tourism numbers?

MORTON LEVINSON: Yeah, I think it’s a number of things. More visitors, obviously, like rebounding from COVID. And then we do get a number—some of our sales tax comes in through construction and different sales through that which we are seeing increases in anecdotally if you’re driving around town or actually if you’re looking at the numbers.

MACKIE: Right, absolutely. That is clearly visible. Talking about visitors and just getting really into the swing of the summer season here. One thing we’re sort of hearing some also anecdotal reports of are issues with staffing, and this is, of course, a perennial issue here. But we’re starting to see even like the Teton County Library scale back its Sunday hours because of short staffing. We at the station, we just heard of like a restaurant that’s no longer offering dinner, for example, because of short staffing issues, which, of course, ties into housing. Is that something that you’re hearing about for this season, that more businesses are having trouble staffing up?

MORTON LEVINSON: Oh, definitely. And that was actually, you know, something that came through, too, with our health and human services presentations, that they want to provide more services, but it’s that staffing issue. And like you said, it is something that happens every year but we can all feel the crunch a lot more this year. And in terms of than actually thinking about the town as its own employment and organization, we also have those concerns of, ‘Can we—while we can fund these positions or the resources that we need, can we actually find those people?’ And yeah, it does come back to housing and quality of life here. And so that’s something that’s always forefront of my mind, and I know on the council’s mind. And so always looking to the investments for housing is significant.

MACKIE: Okay, great. Mayor Morton Levinson, thank you again for your time today.

MORTON LEVINSON: Thank you for having me.

 

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About Kyle Mackie

Kyle is a multimedia journalist who joined KHOL as news director in January 2021. Prior to moving West, she reported on education, immigration, racial justice and more for WBFO, the NPR affiliate in Buffalo, NY. With a background in international reporting, Kyle has also worked in Israel and the Palestinian territories and the Western Balkans. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and geography from The George Washington University and master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York. When not out reporting, Kyle can usually be found trail running, climbing, skiing or grooving to live music.

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