[Editor’s note: On November 6, county election officials found a bundle of additional 77 absentee ballots that had not been counted. Officials counted those ballots and added them to the unofficial results. They increased the voter turnout percentage by 1% but did not change the results of the election. The print iteration of this story has been updated to reflect those numbers.]
Supporters and officials were in high spirits Tuesday night as the results poured in for the SPET election. Voters approved nine of the 10 initiatives on the ballot totaling $75 million. Now the sixth penny of sales tax already collected on goods and services will be funneled towards these projects. Officials estimate it will take five years to fully fund all initiatives.
Improvements to the courthouse was the only measure that didn’t receive the simple majority. It captured just 43% of support. But Jackson Town Councilman Arne Jorgensen said he’s not too worried about that. “The great thing about the courthouse initiative is that there are other ways to fund it. Those are planning dollars; the county has looked at that and will look at that again.”
The purchase of wildland fire engines for $1.6 million was the big winner with 86% of voters approving the measure. That support signals a rising awareness among locals when it comes to the perils of climate change. During a recent SPET voter forum at Teton County Library, chief fire marshal Kathy Clay pointed to the deepening climate crisis. She said the need for such equipment is growing. Case in point, she said, were the recent wildfires that threatened the National Museum of Wildlife Art and multiple Jackson homes.
Voters heeded the call.
It was no surprise that the $10 million dollar initiative for wildlife crossings also drew overwhelming support. Seventy-nine percent of voters gave it the green light. The effort was more than a decade in the making. That’s when retired naturalist and teacher Vance Carruth began holding meetings in his living room about the need for wildlife crossings. Five years ago the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance joined the effort, infusing it with young and impassioned community organizers. Skye Schell, of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said the experience was unlike any organizing he’s done in the past.
“I was out knocking on doors this weekend and had the best conversations I’ve ever had.” Eleven out of the 12 people he met were excited about the measure. “I’ve just never knocked on doors and had that kind of reception. It was incredible.”
Schell was just as pleased to see voters approve projects for transportation ($18.5 million), affordable housing ($5.5 million) and water quality improvement in Cache Creek ($2 million). He suspects get out the vote efforts for wildlife crossings may have helped measures up and down the ballot.
“You’ve got people who are going to show up to vote ‘no’ no matter what,” he said. “But the people who need housing, transit, an affordable rec center, they don’t always vote. So when you do a big get out the vote effort, it gets more people to the polls. And even if you’re talking to them about wildlife crossings, when they show up, they’re probably going to vote for all the measures they care about it.”
Wildlife crossings were among the measures for which a political action committee formed. Final reports from the county show it raised $30,000 in contributions, surpassing all other fundraising efforts. But a PAC for the history museum measure wasn’t too far behind at $25,000. That measure enjoyed healthy support at the polls. Sixty-two percent of voters approved the $4.4 million dollar project. It will partially fund a permanent home for the museum on the Cafe Genevieve block. On the low end of the spectrum was a PAC for the rec center expansion which had the priciest measure on the ballot at $22 million. The PAC raised $3,300. That measure passed with nearly 58% of the vote.
One other political action committee materialized with the express intent of supporting all the measures. Jorgensen said the “Jackson Hole Votes Yes” group bolstered the government’s strategy to “do a better job of community outreach and community engagement.” It gathered $12,480 in contributions.
For voters who supported all projects, that included $5.5 million for affordable and workforce housing. The measure passed with 57% of the vote, but it sat on shaky ground leading up to the election.
Two of the three housing initiatives didn’t pass during the 2017 SPET election and the controversy over 440 West Kelly muddied the waters further. Neighbors on West Kelly have been pressuring elected officials to rethink a workforce housing plan there and now officials can’t agree on how to move forward. Housing advocates worried that controversy was eclipsing the other progress the Housing Authority is making. On top of that, “it’s an off-year election,” Housing Authority director April Norton said. “You just don’t know how many people are going to come out to vote. As a community, I think we recognize that housing is a challenge, but without any local polling or information it’s really hard to know what’s going to happen.”
Voter turnout was several percentage points higher than the 2017 SPET election. That drew 45% of registered voters or 5,983 people. This election saw 49% voters or 6,344 people. All things considered, Norton said, “it was a very humbling and gratifying outcome.”