Town Council Candidate Questionnaires

We released a questionnaire to all candidates. We added the bold font to their responses emphasize the most important aspects of their views. Otherwise, their responses are unedited.

We have removed answers from candidates who did not advance in the primary election. Please contact us if you’re interested in reading their responses.

We have set ambitious housing goals in the Comprehensive Plan, but we do not yet have enough stable funding to achieve these goals. How would you obtain permanent and dedicated revenue for safe, secure and affordable homes for our community members—especially the most vulnerable and lowest-income among us?

Arne Jorgensen: First and foremost continue to work across the state to implement a County optional property transfer tax. This is the tool that most directly targets the source of the issue, high property values, and can be structured to reduce impacts on the most vulnerable in our community. Increase our statewide efforts to establish a range of meaningful property tax relief programs structured to provide relief to those on limited or fixed budgets, renters, and small business owners. This would then permit both the Town and County to strategically access the current unassessed property tax. These programs could include a homestead exemption, capped or limited rate of growth in tax increases, create different classes of residential property, and more robust refund options for small businesses and lower income renters. Review the option of an additional 1% Specific Purpose Excise Tax (SPET) dedicated to Housing opportunity funds. Continue to consider an additional 1% general revenue sales tax at a County wide or Town only scale. Aggressively pursue leveraging our limited revenues through bonding, incremental tax increase financing, or private foundation mission driven lending. While not as permanent or predictable, increasing philanthropic efforts to support community housing. It is critical that we never lose sight of the need to ensure that any homes that are presented as affordable or available to members of our workforce are protected over generations of residents. This is a simple fiscally conservative reality that our public investment in housing, be it public funds or the political will to provide additional density, must be protected!

Katherine “Kat” Rueckert: I appreciate the housing goals set throughout the Comprehensive Plan, however, if there is not sufficient funding to achieve all the goals, then prioritization is the next step. This means, we have to determine what projects can be completed with the available funding we have. Unfortunately, “permanent and dedicated revenue” equates to more taxes – this is not something up for discussion, in my opinion. Property taxes have increased significantly for everyone throughout the valley – this, and other tax increases, directly affect the most vulnerable and lowest-income earners, as well. Therefore, we need to work with what we have.

Jonathan Schechter: Two themes inform my answers to all your questions. 1) Running for office is a “me, me, me” exercise. Governing is “we, we, we.” Once in office, not even the smartest, most impassioned candidate can significantly affect a complex issue unless they can work well with others. 2) HL Mencken noted: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple, and wrong.” There are no clear, simple solutions to our housing dilemma. Nor are there quick fixes. Regarding housing, the most important thing any elected can do is collaborate with their colleagues. This includes actively supporting the community’s housing professionals, advisory boards, and other interested parties. Absent this, no effort will succeed. The Housing Needs Assessment found we need 5,330 new housing units in the region, 3,195 in Teton County WY alone. The average subsidy for each is $500,000, totaling $2.7 billion and $1.6 billion respectively. This is orders of magnitude more than local government generates annually. Jackson Hole is a 21st century community with a 20th century operating system. Sales taxes account for ~60% of local government revenues, even though they comprise only ~15% of the local economy. Until Wyoming develops a more equitable funding system, traditional methods for funding housing will remain woefully inadequate. And because of Cheyenne’s intransigence, other mechanisms must be pursued. Given this, I will take two steps: 1) Ask “Is what we’re doing adequate?” Because the answer is clearly “no,” my colleagues and I must then direct staff to investigate other, more innovative financing approaches (staff must do this work, because no elected has the expertise to do the job properly). 2) As I’ve been doing post-COVID, I will continue to engage behind-the-scenes with local interested parties, exploring ways to develop the permanent, dedicated funding we need. Some of these conversations have gone nowhere; others hold potential. With luck, one or more will prove fruitful.

Devon Viehman: My opinions are informed by my years of experience advocating for housing protections at the local, state, and national levels as well as by the children I’ve witnessed sleeping in hallways in overcrowded houses due to rising housing costs. We have an unhoused population in our community that is ignored because many do not want to face the truth that does not fit with our idyllic view of Jackson. I know some community members are truly desperate for secure housing which is why I’m committed to saying YES for them. Many mention a real estate transfer tax, SPET, or expanded lodging tax as options for sustainable funding, but there is a deep mistrust of government spending and lack of oversight/transparency. I’m willing to say YES, but realistically for any tax option to be successful in Jackson, it’d have to be voter decided (with the option to renew every few years), unequivocally earmarked for affordable housing (and not put into a general fund), and transparently managed. Aside from funding, another big part of the housing solution is the willingness to say YES in my backyard. I’m willing to say YES to developers who offer housing solutions, even small-scale projects. We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Every option needs to be considered. I’m willing to say YES to creating incentives for developers to invest in large scale affordable developments over luxury hotels. I’m willing to say YES to transitional housing solutions. Once someone gets behind in Jackson, they’re often forced to leave the valley. We need a transitional housing option. I’m willing to say YES to eliminating the red tape for local small businesses wanting to build employee housing but who are prohibited by the exorbitant cost that only big box stores can afford. We need revenue dedicated to achieving our affordable housing goals, yes. We also need leaders dedicated to saying YES to a multitude of housing solutions as well.

What is your vision for Northern South Park? What specific income levels and which types of workers (or non-workers)  should be able to afford the homes, and what price point serves those community members? Do you think the current Draft Plan put us on the right path? Why or why not, and how would you change it?

Arne Jorgensen: Northern South Park provides both opportunity and challenges. There is an opportunity for a wide cross section of community housing priced across a continuum of affordability from low income rentals – to first time home buyer homes – to middle income rentals and ownership homes – and to market units. There are also opportunities for important public and institutional uses such as schools, parks, and fire stations. The challenges include ensuring that any homes that are presented as affordable or available to members of our community are protected over generations of residents – to requiring that any built infrastructure such as roads, water, sewer, stormwater, sidewalks, and emergency services are built to appropriate town standards – to addressing that the capacity and quality of the connecting infrastructure is increased and paid for by those generating the need – to providing for transparency of wildlife movement – and to recognize that the property owners will not move forward unless there is an economic upside. The current Draft Plan as modified by the County Commissioners is on the right path. This Plan is a significant improvement over the first proposals which did not contain anywhere near the appropriate level of community or workforce housing or meaningful protections of long term accessibility or affordability. The next steps will be critical if there is to be a benefit of a wide cross section of community housing while addressing the challenges, it is with the details of upcoming zoning and planning efforts where these issues will play out. It is also very important to state that my raising pointed questions or making pointed statements should in no way be read as opposition, I am building on my nearly 33 years of working through community housing issues to be sure that we learn from our past missteps as well others that have earlier met these challenges. Northern South Park can and should be successful in providing for meaningful community benefit.

Katherine “Kat” Rueckert: I would love to see a variety of living styles incorporated into the Northern South Park development. I think this region can turn into a wonderful, diverse neighborhood that fits the character of Jackson while providing working families affordable living options. I think any full-time workers (low & medium income) within Teton County should be eligible for the affordable/workforce housing options. The price point that serves those community members depends on their income level – ideally, individuals/families aren’t paying more than 30% of their gross monthly income towards their housing. Currently, I believe the Draft Plan puts us on the right path by incorporating unrestricted & deed restricted housing and single family & multi-family housing types (which vary in lot size and type of unit). I believe this variety of housing options will enable a vibrant neighborhood that allows working families to grow.

Jonathan Schechter: In my perfect world, Northern South Park would have 100% deed restricted homes, a combination of affordable and workforce, for-sale and rental. The specific mix of types would be that recommended by staff and the Housing Supply Board. Two problems plague this ideal: property owners’ rights and related legal issues; and the limited power local government has in this situation (especially given Cheyenne’s willingness to override local government if the landowners object). Two other realities affect my thinking about this issue. One is that local elected officials are generalists, rarely deeply knowledgeable about any subject. As a result, we rely on staff, boards, and other interested parties to provide the expertise needed to successfully address complex subjects. This is certainly my approach to housing, and doubly so with an effort such as Northern South Park, where an ill-timed or ill-informed comment by an elected might derail the delicate, exceptionally complex, multi-party negotiations underlying the effort. The other is that the town has only an advisory role in the Northern South Park effort. As a result, I have not deeply focused on Northern South Park, for there is little the town council can do to directly affect the outcome. There is even less I can do as one councilmember. The effort I have devoted to Northern South Park has been focused in two areas: 1) Pushing for the highest proportion of affordable housing that can be accomplished within the complex matrix of legalities, negotiations and interests involved; and 2) Working behind the scenes to keep parties at the negotiating table when they have threatened to pull out. This approach has been similar to my work to find permanent funding mechanisms – I try to focus my efforts where I have the greatest chance to make a difference, without regard to drawing attention to myself. This is the best way I know of to complement and otherwise support those working on the front lines of local affordable housing.

Devon Viehman: I am thrilled to see NSP move forward because it is one of the last large developable spaces in our county that we can truly make an impact with workforce housing. I serve on the Teton County Planning Commission and was proud to vote YES and move this project to the next step. Yes, several steps still need to be taken over this next year, but we can get there! We need as much affordable and workforce housing as we can get there. Our middle and working classes are stuck in the expensive renter hamster wheel with no hope of ever buying a home. My vision for Northern South Park is to create a Complete Neighborhood, one where our local workforce, community members with disabilities, and our retired community members are offered housing with accessibility to schools, grocery stores, bike paths, bus stops, medical facilities, and retail space. Currently 65% of the lots are dedicated to deed-restricted homes including 30-40 lots going to Habitat for Humanity. We have some more work to get done though to truly address the need for lower income housing which will require a subsidy for homes to cost around $300K. To reach that price point, we need to consider density and multi-family home options. We still have time to work on this over the next year. Is the current plan perfect? No, but it is a start, and this could be a huge win for our community. I am excited to see the project move forward, and I will work diligently on the County Planning Commission this year on the new zoning rules.

It will take unprecedented and strategic partnerships to move the housing needle meaningfully. Which entities (besides other housing-specific organizations) should be working together to address housing insecurity? In practical terms, how would you use the levers of local government to help build collaborative partnerships among stakeholders in this region?

Arne Jorgensen: Our community benefits anytime we can increase meaningful respectful dialogue around housing. The question suggests an effort such as the Mountain Housing Council of Tahoe Truckee (MHC). This regional effort seems to have helped that community focus on building support for housing solutions. It is noteworthy that the local Community Foundation was instrumental in the creation of MHC. This model would make sense in our region in that I feel that a governmental led effort may not be as widely embraced. I have stood ready to take part in any community discussion around housing, and continue to do so as well as supporting the involvement of the Town and Joint Housing Department. Given my over 20 years serving on the board of the Wyoming Community Foundation, I have the additional understanding of how our local Community Foundation of Jackson Hole could play a similar leadership role. In addition to local and state government and our non-profit housing providers and advocates, we should be looking to include at a minimum: staff and donors of local non-profits including Health and Human service providers and those with a conservation focus, small and large business owners and advocates, private developers, engineering and architectural design teams, property owners, real estate industry, and our local philanthropic community. I feel that it is important to note that the housing related work of each of the stakeholders, including local government, should continue in parallel with any type of broader based community dialogue.

Katherine “Kat” Rueckert: The entities that need to be working together are the business owners, developers, non-profits, churches, and local, long-time Jackson Hole families. Our local government should organize meetings with these entities, then stay out of the discussion – other than to offer legal or policy-driven guidance. Based on the collaborative effort of these private entities, the local government should adjust their rules & regulations (if need be) and allow for the solutions produced.

Jonathan Schechter: For 20+ years, my Charture Institute has emphasized taking a collaborative, regional approach to the many community, economic, and environmental challenges facing our region. My strong sense is that no other organization can match Charture’s record for fostering new and different thinking, new and different approaches, and new and different relationships between our region’s organizations, people, and interests. One reason I ran for office was to take regional collaboration to the next level. My goal was to use government’s convening power to further multi-sector collaboration addressing our most difficult challenges. Unfortunately, for 2 of my 3.5 years in office, Jackson was able to focus on little more than COVID. As a result, part of the reason I’m running again is to pursue my vision of creating and formalizing new regional, cross-sectoral, and cross-disciplinary collaborations. To this end, I will draw upon my long-established relationships with other local governments, local industry, academics, and the region’s extraordinary depth and breadth of human talent to create new ways to address problems – like housing – that are overwhelming our current resources and approaches. Ideally, I will be able to apply lessons I learned helping the Land Trust “Save the Block” to develop new mechanisms for addressing housing and related issues. My experience in envisioning, advocating for, and helping bring into existence Jackson’s first-in-the-nation Ecosystem Stewardship Administrator position gives me confidence I can work within the town structure to help successfully pursue other, similarly innovative efforts, like the ones we need to meaningfully address housing. One final thought. My experience in bringing together different interests to help address larger issues reinforces my belief that a “me, me, me” approach will get us nowhere. As a community and region, we need to become far more adept at “we, we, we” if we are to come close to reaching our potential.

Devon Viehman: Without even being part of the local government, I have worked to build collaborative partnerships in the region. I am proud to have founded the Community Housing Fund—another tool our community can utilize to fund affordable housing projects. This fund empowers every real estate agent and every home seller to designate proceeds (or a portion of the agent’s commission) to fund affordable housing in Teton County at every transaction. It is not the silver bullet, but every tool added to the tool box helps to positively impact our housing crisis. We can also look at other resort and gateway communities such as Vail, Aspen, Lake Tahoe, Gatlinburg and others who are experiencing housing crises as well. We don’t have to tackle housing solutions in isolation. In these places we see the resorts themselves as well as the state contributing to affordable housing projects. We can observe and learn from other communities in similar crises and ask ourselves what is working for them. What did they try that worked? And then we can decide if similar efforts would be appropriate for our region. Besides other housing-specific organizations, we also need to make sure that we are allocating a portion of our budget to fund the human services council which includes organizations like One22, Community Entry Services, the Senior Center, Community Safety Network, and others that we don’t automatically think of when we think of organizations that help house our community members, but who not only support housing efforts but also provide other critical services for our most vulnerable community members.

We believe our community needs to push the pause button on development (except housing reserved for locals) so we have time to recalibrate our zoning regulations to incentivize the development we want to see in our community. Do you think now is the time to impose a temporary moratorium? Why or why not? If so, how can we protect ourselves from Cheyenne’s involvement? If not, how do you plan to change development patterns to work for low- and medium-income locals, quickly?

Arne Jorgensen: No, this is absolutely not an indication of how seriously I take access to affordable community housing. A moratorium by its nature and legal construct is very effective when addressing a topic that is in process with somewhat of a predictable outcome, a recent example would be the moratorium placed around the approvals of the 2017/18 Housing mitigation levels. Three points in relation to the involvement of the Wyoming Legislature: Relationships are key in order to be more effective working with members of the Legislature, being clear and follow through when committing to action. For example, when locals brought forth legislative action that would eviscerate our housing mitigation program we committed to updating our regulations – we are in the process of doing so. I feel confident in stating that if we had not made such a commitment, we would have lost our ability to require any housing mitigation. Just to be clear, these tools have generated a significant number of the 1,400 plus restricted community housing we currently have on the ground. If we were to take action on a broad based moratorium, I feel that this would lead to legislative action that would significantly reduce our ability to address issues in ways that best fits our needs. It is important to remember that most of the issues that arise in the Legislature do so with introductory support from our fellow residents. The issuance of a moratorium is not required to take action. The Town is currently working on a number of issues that have the potential to positively impact availability of housing, these include: addressing short term rentals outside of the Lodging overlay, housing nexus study that provides for the legal underpinning for updating our housing mitigation rates, and the impacts of high end condominiums in our commercial core.

Katherine “Kat” Rueckert: Absolutely not – our local government should NEVER have the power to impose a temporary moratorium on private citizen development. Government does not get to just stop people’s progress so they can “recalibrate” their regulations. Instead of wasting time in numerous meetings about the same re-zoning question, or deliberating for years on how to develop Northern South Park, why don’t we just vote? If regulations are the problem, it’s time to deregulate and simplify so we don’t have such drawn out discussions and waste everyone’s time. I agree, efficiency is key. Efficiency within our government will not happen by crucifying the community through a moratorium – instead, hold the government accountable. I plan to do so.

Jonathan Schechter: Schechter’s Equation for Life is S=R-E; Satisfaction equals Reality minus Expectations. If Expectations are high, Reality must be higher if someone is to be satisfied. I mention this because the housing issue is so complex – such a web of legal, equity, demographic, ownership, and economic factors – that it’s unlikely changing zoning alone can produce a result that works “…for low- and medium-income locals.” As a result, I worry that imposing a moratorium and changing zoning regulations may raise expectations that simply can’t be met. Stepping back, on July 5 Jackson approved the Ranch Inn redevelopment. We did this because, as the applicant emphasized, the proposal followed the rules. Before voting, I observed: “We need to ask whether our rules are producing the community we want.” No other councilmember raised such concerns, yet this is essentially the issue you raise here. Over the past few years – particularly the past two COVID years – profound socio-economic changes have washed over Jackson. Our rules, however, date from 2012, and have a “generals planning the last war” quality to them. Hence my comment re. the Ranch Inn. From this perspective two foundational questions arise: “How can we assess these rules?” and “If they aren’t working, what do we do instead?” The answers aren’t clear. What is clear, though, is that these are such important and difficult questions that we can’t approach them lightly – if we do, we’ll fail, disappointing those whose expectations we raised. Of particular concern is that properly addressing these issues will take extraordinary resources, yet right now both the town and county are sorely under-resourced. The potential of Cheyenne meddling makes all this even harder. At a minimum, we collectively need to ask ourselves a series of big picture questions focused on whether the current rules are producing the community we want. In that vein, while a moratorium may be a key part of the larger effort, it cannot be undertaken lightly.

Devon Viehman: I serve as Vice-Chair of the Land Use, Environment & Property Rights committee for the National Association of Realtors. It is made up of 70 members from across the US, and nearly each representative reported the same affordable housing issues. From downtown Atlanta to Jackson Hole, local zoning, regulation and permitting processes have become so cumbersome that no one can build workforce housing without losing money. Our committee’s sole task this year is addressing the national housing supply and affordability issue through legislation. “Moratorium” is a scary word that many people equate with “no growth.” However, if we do utilize that “pause button” we must use that time to restructure zoning regulations and permitting or we will just have more luxury townhomes and hotels because they are currently incentivized with the current structure. Because developing housing takes so long and is so expensive, no one can build anything different and turn a profit. We can’t expect people to willingly lose money. Our electeds make the rules that developers have to follow, so let’s enact new rules. “Transitional zones” aren’t working the way they were intended; it just pushed the property values up even more. We need elected officials to take bold action and make swift, data-driven decisions. A moratorium would also set a deadline for decision making and give the overworked staff a reprieve to actually put the time into developing a new plan for zoning/regulations so that our community can grow in a meaningful way. To reduce the likelihood that Cheyenne would override the local government, we must elect people that don’t get Cheyenne’s hackles up when Jackson is mentioned or represented. Relationships matter. If local electeds have good relationships with state legislators—which I do from my time advocating for housing protections at the state level—then we have a better chance of implementing what we think is best for our community without Cheyenne’s involvement.