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Ohio Man Killed In Class IV Rapids On Gros Ventre River In Teton County

in News/Search and Rescue
21339

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

An Ohio man was killed on Tuesday in a rafting accident on the on the Gros Ventre River in Teton County, according to Teton County Search and Rescue (TCSAR) officials.

TCSAR officials said they were contacted on Tuesday evening to respond to a report of a “cataraft” launched onto a stretch of whitewater below Lower Slide Lake flipping near a rapid known as “Hermit.”

While one person was able to climb back onto the craft, the other person continued downstream. Others in an accompanying watercraft tried to chase the man down the river, but were unable to retrieve him.

Volunteers with TCSAR responded with swiftwater recovery teams on foot and in rafts and deployed an aerial drone.

Grand Teton National Park also dispatched a team of Jenny Lake Rangers and the interagency helicopter due to the accident site’s close proximity to the park boundary.

Teton County Sheriff’s deputies also responded, as did many recreational river users already on the scene.

According to TCSAR officials, the man was reportedly last seen near a large boulder, around a quarter of a mile upriver from the park boundary, at a sharp bend known as Jumping Rock.

Shortly after, a spotter at Jumping Rock saw the man floating, unresponsive, downriver.

The helicopter was able to follow the man as he floated downriver and eventually became stuck on a log jam about 1 mile downriver. Search and rescue volunteers managed to reach the man and bring him to shore.

TCSAR officials pointed out that the 3-mile stretch of whitewater in question is categorized as Class IV and is the most demanding, accessible whitewater stretch in Teton County.

On Tuesday, the river was flowing above its usual level by an average of about 2.5 feet. The area has been experiencing high water for nearly two weeks.

The numerous rapids were formed by the Gros Ventre Slide from 1925 and an ensuing flood, which created sharp, angular rocks that make any swimming especially hazardous.

SAR officials did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Thursday.

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Teton County Commission OKs “Historic” Worker Housing Project

in Teton County/News
20814

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By Jennifer Kocher, CowboyStateDaily.com

The Teton County Commissioners voted unanimously June 8 to approve a zoning change that will pave the way for up to 26 workforce housing units to be built on donated land north of Hoback Junction.  

The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust (JHCHT), which is overseeing the project on behalf of Comunidad, LLC, requested a zone change from rural to suburban. This would allow for development of the detached single-family homes on the 13.13-acre property on Henry’s Road, east of S. Highway 89.

Local residents Paul and Kathy Spicer donated the land which now serves as the grounds for A-OK Corral, a commercial horseback riding operation. The Hughes Charitable Foundation (HCF) also donated $10 million for this and another project.

JHCHT Executive Director Anne Cresswell told commissioners that these gifts offered a “tremendous opportunity to develop desperately affordable housing to provide urgent and essential services for our community’s at-risk and crisis residents.”

The housing is earmarked for personnel who work in 13 different “essential” areas as designated by the Human Services Council organizations. These include law enforcement and emergency services, senior center employees, childcare and literacy workers among others. 

The units will be 100% guaranteed deed-restricted affordable housing for employees of the specified local organizations. Deed restrictions are legal documents filed in the county that place various restrictions on the sale and use of a property to ensure that houses remain affordable for future sales. 

The Spicers received a round of applause at the meeting when they explained what propelled them to donate the land. Paul Spicer’s father purchased the property 40 years ago. The couple bought it from Spicer’s siblings with the goal of developing it into affordable housing.

“My dad loved this part of the country,” he said. “He died a number of years ago, but he would be looking down and saying that property I bought…is going to help a community I really love.”

Kathy Spicer also spoke, explaining the roots of their company, Comunidad, LLC. The name means ‘community’ in Spanish, which is her first language.

“My parents were immigrants,” she said, “And that’s our wish. This community.”

Molly Hughes, executive director of HCF, also credited the Spicers for their gift of land and said the foundation was thrilled to be part of the project. 

“This development will provide housing for locals who are already living in our community,” Hughes told Cowboy State Daily Wednesday. “These homes will be for local families who are currently under-housed or experiencing housing insecurity. These people provide vital services, and we need them living in our community.”

This is the first time in the 31-year history of the Housing Trust that they have had in hand all requisite philanthropy required to develop up to 25 affordable homes, Executive Director Anne Cresswell said.

“Typically, this kind of fundraising takes years to come together,” she said. “It’s our sincere hope that these awe-inspiring commitments will inspire others in the community to be a part of the solution; the lack of affordable housing in Teton County affects every sector of our community.”

Some Potential Problems



The Teton Planning Commission previously recommended approval for the project by a 2-1 vote, but the planning director recommended denying it because the land was in a conservation preservation district. Ryan Hostetter, the county’s principal long-range planner, said the project did not meet the county’s Comprehensive Plan goals for growth management.  

Hostetter told Cowboy State Daily that the Comprehensive Plan limits officials’ recommendations to what is allowed in the plan, and typically, new housing projects should be able to tie into existing water and other municipal infrastructure.

The planning commission does not have authority to approve or deny a project but rather gives its recommendation based on these guidelines, Hostetter said. 

Some local conservation groups and neighbors voiced opposition to housing of the project’s density being built in the rural area, particularly in the Hoback area which is known for water quality issues and excessive nitrate amounts.

Matt Bambach, water quality advocate for Protect Our Water Jackson Hole, said water quality tests in the canyon have repeatedly indicated levels of nitrate that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPAs) maximum containment limit. 

High levels of nitrate can have a negative impact on how the blood carries oxygen, particularly in infants, he noted.

“Robust and expensive filtration systems will likely be required to provide new residents with non-harmful water,” he said. “Whether this development will likely negatively impact downgrading water quality and quantity is also a concern.”

Some neighbors expressed concern about wastewater and septic tank systems and how the new homeowners would be able to afford upkeep and care.

Alison Lee, program director for JHCHT, said that they are working with Jackson engineering firm, Jorgensen, to develop an advanced wastewater treatment system for the development.

In a statement in the zoning application, Jorgensen said JHCHT will work with the Teton County engineering department and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to overcome challenges and meet water quality requirements once zoning has been approved.

Lee said ongoing operations and maintenance costs would be borne by the residents. This is something they’ve done on the nine housing projects they’ve helped develop, Lee noted, which is built into the project’s budget.

“We produce a robust budget for the incoming HOA (homeowner’s association),” Lee told commissioners. “That’s part of our job as a developer, and in every case, we allow for the maintenance operation and replacement reserves for the infrastructure for those homeowners.”

Meghan Quinn, executive director for Protect Our Water Jackson Hole said this might be an opportunity for Teton County to address long-standing issues in both Fish and Flat Creek areas, particularly in addressing the elevated rates of nitrates in the drinking water.

She noted the more than $5.6 million the commissioners approved to upgrade the wastewater facilities in neighboring Wilson versus the $5,000 it allocated to address public health and environmental issues in Hoback.

“So if you decide to move forward with this rezone, please do not ask the Community Housing Trust to figure out their own water and wastewater issues,” Quinn said via Zoom.

Housing and Labor Breaking Point

The housing imbalance in Teton County has exacerbated in the past decade, according to a March 2022 Teton Region Housing Needs Assessment. Since 2010, jobs have outpaced twice the rate of housing. Currently, the assessment estimated a need for about 5,300 more housing units in the county by 2027.

Not only is there a severe housing shortage, but the few available rentals and properties are far too expensive for the average worker to afford.

Currently, a two-bedroom, one-bath condo in downtown Jackson costs upwards of $749,000 while the median cost price for a one-bedroom home is $1.2 million, according to a May 2022 housing report from Rocket Homes. The average home cost hovers at more than $3.6 million.

This shortage has taken its toll on many local businesses and organizations that are undergoing severe staffing shortages never seen before. Residents say the housing and labor shortages are greatly impacting the ability to provide much-needed services, particularly when it comes to childcare and caring for the disabled and elderly. 

Sarah Cavallaro, executive director of Teton Youth and Family Services, one of the organizations that will benefit from the proposed housing, said her organization has hit a “critical point” in its services.

Last year, the group asked the county for an additional $300,000, so it could increase the base pay for employees up to $20 an hour. At the same time, the organization saw a 40% increase in the need for services. Currently, Teton Youth and Family Services is providing services for nine children with an additional six on the waiting list due to staff shortages.

Though the organization has some housing in Victor, Idaho for employees, the entity is budgeting more money for housing incentives in order to attract prospective employees.

“We are totally in support of clean water for everyone,” Cavallaro said, “and if this is approved, I think this gives us the opportunity to have that conversation of how we make this happen. I’ve heard a lot of reasons of why we can’t, and I would love to hear how we can work together as a community to make this happen.”

An essential services worker is a rare breed, Cavallaro added, and she thinks area residents should be doing everything in their power to keep these workers in the community.

“There’s stress in our community right now in case we haven’t noticed,” she said. “I haven’t seen this level of mental health and behavioral health pressures in this community in my 22 years of living here.” 

This housing is a good first step, but there’s no question that the demand for these homes will outstrip supply, according to Cresswell.

A 2021 housing survey of 215 Human Service Council employees found that more than half were paying more than 50% in rental rates than they could afford, she said. Twelve months later and the average market rent of a 2-bedroom apartment in Teton County is up 56% from $2,665 in July 2021 to $4,172 in July 2022.

Pushback from Neighbors

Along with water quality and sewer issues, some neighbors questioned the density of housing that would be built on the roughly 6.5 acres that are developable. 

One area home and business owner, Jimmy Anderson, sympathized with the employee shortage that has also impacted his businesses but warned traffic congestion on an already busy highway.  The road also sees traffic from the local campground and trailer park. Some days he counts up to 50 cars before he can pull out, he said.

“They’re going to be zooming out on the highway,” he said. “It’s a tough little place.”

Anderson is also worried that the influx of dogs ­ – because “everybody in Teton County has a dog” – would attract cougars and other predators.

“Doggies are hors d’oeuvres,” he said.

Other neighbors like Matt and Alyson Bowers said the zoning change would alter the character of the rural area.  They said it would place the onus of covering the cost of housing workers on government instead of local business owners. The Bowers were also concerned about the cost of raising property values through increased development in a rural area.

“The affordable housing cry makes zero difference to the proposal,” Matt Bowers wrote in a letter to commissioners. “You have been wasting tax dollars to create seas of subsidized housing for the 16 years I’ve lived here and it’s done nothing but give local businesses a free pass on taking care of their own.”

He asked commissioners to keep the housing in town where density makes more sense.

“The quality of life is nose diving quickly due to agendas like yours,” he wrote.

The Only Tool in the Box

The idea of using the “suburban tool” as a means to deal with the current housing crisis was also a sticking point for both Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst.

Ultimately, however, the commissioners said they conceded to the zone change given the severity of the housing crisis as well as the generous donation of both the Spicer family and the HCF.  The commissioners noted that the location for the development was not ideal.

Newcomb said that he’s personally going to think of putting a moratorium on suburban zoning changes in the future in order to preserve “community-wide discipline,” so they don’t leave the issue for the next group of five commissioners.

Both Newcomb and Propst are running for election this year.

Propst acknowledged the “slippery slope” prior to his vote to approve the project, which passed 4-0, with Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker out on maternity leave.

“The location is not ideal, but that’s the county we live in,” Propst said, thanking the Spicers and HCF for their donations.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Mark Barron “enthusiastically” greenlighted the zone change.

“The suburban tool is the only tool potentially being used for affordable housing, so I enthusiastically support this motion,” he said.

Cresswell said the next step is to work on a detailed project planning and pre-construction cost estimating.

“As costs of construction continue to escalate, this is a race against the clock and we hope to break ground as soon as possible,” she said.

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Jackson Housing Crisis: Homes For Utility Workers Approved Despite Opposition

in Teton County/News
20170

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By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

A plan to house energy company workers in Jackson so they can rapidly respond to power outages has been approved by Teton County Commissioners.

Approval of the plan comes nearly six years after workers for the Lower Valley Energy Co-Operative (LVE), forced to live across Teton Pass from Jackson by high housing prices, were unable to respond to a major power outage in the community.

Commissioners on May 17 approved the sketch plan to allow LVE to build 17 single family houses on its land.

Approval of the plan for the deed-restricted homes south of Jackson off of U.S. Highway 89 was approved only after commissioners limited the proposed size of the home lots to 12,000 square feet.

The housing plan follows a massive blowdown in February 2017 in which 17 steel transmission lines in Teton Village snapped due to heavy winds, ice and snow. 

The outage cut off power to the ski area and surrounding neighborhoods for nearly five days, according to Brian Tanabe, LVE communication manager, impacting thousands of people and prompting the county to declare a state of emergency.

Due to avalanches and road closures, the utility could not get its largely Afton-based crew into the county, requiring the company to team up with five other utility companies from inside and outside Wyoming to mitigate the emergency.

The desire to have more emergency response employees living in Teton County, as well as offering housing as an incentive to attract and retain workers, was a driving force behind the project, said Co-Op CEO Jim Webb.

Most of LVE’s 75 employees live in Star Valley, Webb said, adding only one full-time and one part-time lineman actually live in Teton County.

Though the utility does have a condo for on-call emergency employees, most emergencies require a crew to fix the problem, he added.

Employee housing would also be helpful in attracting new employees who are interested in settling down and starting a family, Webb added. Most of LVE’s employees stay long-term, he added, with one employee recently retiring after 47 years and another retiring after 33.

LVE is working with other agencies to help meet housing needs. Under terms of the deed restrictions, the housing would be reserved for local employees who work more than 30 hours per week for a local business or earn 75% of their income locally. Residents also would not be allowed to own real estate within 150 miles.

Webb said that the need to provide employee housing has become a necessity in Teton County.

“I don’t want to be a landlord and didn’t want to be a land developer. I’m a utility guy and didn’t want to develop property,” he said. “But we’ve all been forced into these kind of situations.”

A recent Teton County housing assessment estimated a current shortage of about 5,300 housing units in the region, forcing commuters to drive from 10,750 to 17,500 miles a year to get to jobs within the town and county.

LVE board member and Wyoming Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, said the housing situation has become untenable both in Jackson and Star Valley, forcing employers to step in more often with housing assistance.

“Everything has become unaffordable,” he said. “This problem is not going to go away, so we wanted to step in and try to provide a solution.”

Working With Restrictions

Among other conditions for approval, LVE agreed to work with the Wyoming Department of Transportation to extend a fence to direct elk and other animals to a nearby underpass rather than encourage the animals to cross a busy road near the development.

Commissioners denied a request from LVE to increase the size of four of the lots for homes, noting the utility in 2020 agreed to 12,000 sq. foot lot sizes when the county approved a rezoning request that would allow the project to proceed.

Expanding the maximum lot sizes wasn’t an option at this point in the process, according to Keith Gingery, chief deputy county attorney, because the county’s land use regulations (LDRs) doesn’t allow for zoning amendments.

“This is why we don’t do conditional zoning,” Gingery said during the meeting. “Just so everybody understands because now the applicant is essentially changing their mind, and so now we have something different in front of us. And so that’s why we never, we always say ‘nope,’ the county doesn’t do conditional zoning.”

LVE is willing to work with the lot sizes, Bill Collins, president of Collins Planning Associates and consultant on the project, told Cowboy State Daily Wednesday.

“We will have to live with it and make it work,” he said.

Pushback From Neighbors

Several residents of the neighboring Little Horsethief Canyon development voiced their objections to commissioners about housing density, obstruction to wildlife migration, affordability and fears over who might be purchasing the units.

Some felt that the Co-Op failed to tell them that not all of the residents in the LVE units will be company employees.

“There are a lot of unknown to me and it’s misleading to be called Lower Valley workforce when it is in no way intended initially to be,” Little Horsethief Canyon resident Wendy Meyring told commissioners. “…The affordability question comes into play. Lower Valley Energy may be able to subsidize in some form, but how are these other entities going to handle that?”

Other neighbors expressed concern about the impact on wildlife and how the additional homes might affect traffic and overall quality of life.

Webb was forthright in his admission that the company never intended the new development to be only for LVE workers. He said the utility did not want to make employees feel like they are living in a “company town.”

To this end, he and his board have been in talks with other local agencies, including Game and Fish, Wyoming Department of Transportation and the town of Jackson, to also offer this housing for their employees.

As for concerns about affordability and whether employees would be granted the option to purchase the units, Webb said the utility is still working out the specifics. Likely, the Co-Op will offer subsidies and incentives based on years of service, along with some kind of path to ownership, though nothing at this point is set in stone.

He also noted that the properties would be built slowly over time.

Next Steps

Collins had no idea when the final plan would be ready to present to commissioners, which is the next step in the process.

“We are somewhat at the mercy of some very busy individuals,” Collins said, noting the limited availability of civil engineers and surveyor required to map out the water, sewer and roads plans.

Collins applauded the commissioners and process in general, which began in October 2019. Costs of the project so far have exceeded $75,000.

“It’s moved through the process in routine fashion,” Collins said. “The county commissioners are very supportive. They are happy to see a private company stepping forward on their own initiative and own dime.”

Dockstadter agreed that it has been a meticulous process but is moving smoothly.

“Those people in Teton County run a tight ship,” Dockstadter said, “and if it’s not exactly right, it will get tossed out.”

Right now, apart from providing the second-lowest residential electric rates of all cooperatives in the nation, the Co-Op is focused on getting ahead of the housing crunch.

“Housing is our priority right now,” Tanabe said.

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Jackson Hole Airport Recycling 90% Of Its Runway In Massive Replacement Project

in Teton County/News
19403

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Recycling cans? Sure. 

Recycling glass? Absolutely. 

Recycling an airport runway… wait, say again?

The Jackson Hole Airport’s runway is in the process of being replaced, but because of the airport’s unique location inside a national park, the project’s environmental impact is at the top of mind for managers.

Which explains why 90% of the existing material being removed is being re-used rather than hauled off and discarded.

“We are, as you may know, the only commercial service airport fully located inside of a national park,” said Meg Jenkins, the communications manager and public information officer for the Jackson Hole Airport. “So we really try and be good stewards of our space and really considerate of any impacts we’re having on our surrounding ecosystem.”

Jenkins told Cowboy State Daily that this routine project has been anticipated for almost a decade and the staff at the airport has been preparing for the project for the last six or seven years.

“Airport runways are a lot like highways,” she said. “They only have a certain life expectancy, so to stay up to par and keep our safety measures where the (Federal Aviation Administration) likes to see them, typically, runways are replaced anywhere from every 40 to 70 years, depending on where they’re at and what they’re made out of.” 

While runway replacements may be routine airport maintenance, there are several unique aspects to the work at Jackson Hole Airport.



Minimizing Environmental Impact

Jim Elwood, the airport’s manager, told Cowboy State Daily that project managers are focusing on making sure the airport’s environmental impact is as small as can be reasonably managed.

“Every decision that is made is focused on recognizing and respecting that we are the only commercial air service within a national park, and the very special place that is this Yellowstone ecosystem,” Elwood said. “So those things are incredibly valuable to the airport board, and to the staff that work here, that we do things to a high level.”

One of those environmentally conscious decisions, according to Jenkins, was to use the material being torn up from the existing runway to create the new one, saving thousands of dollars in materials – and in fuel.

“Right now, they are milling the old runway,” she said. “They’re estimating reusing 90% of those runway millings back into the new runway, and that part is estimated to keep about 8,500 trucks off our local roadways, and saving 187,000 gallons of fuel.”

Jenkins said so far, crews have already screened and crushed about 20,000 cubic yards of native materials that they have excavated on-site to use as sub-base for the new runway. By not having to truck that material to the airport, the crews kept 1,300 to 2,000 trucks off the community roadways.



State-Of-The-Art Drainage

Another project element intended to reduce the airport’s environmental impact is a state-of-the-art drainage system that will capture all the surface water from the runway, keeping chemicals from leeching into the ground.

“Streets, roadways, runways have a lot of different additives that come off of airplanes that aren’t great to go back into the ground,” Jenkins said. “So if we can capture all that and funnel it through our storm system that we put in just a couple of years ago, it gets filtered naturally through different layers of soils, and actually bubbles back up as almost pure drinking water.”

“This runway, to my knowledge, will be the most environmentally respectful runway with those drain systems and filtration of any runway that I’m aware of in the United States,” Elwood said.

The project, which began in mid-April, is expected to take 78 days to complete, an inconvenience to the community that is not far from the minds of project managers, Jenkins said.

“It’s a very big deal to our community and our locals to not have their service right now,” she said. “Fortunately, for Jackson, we typically get really busy starting the Fourth of July. So we tried to be really thoughtful in the process of when we wanted to do this closure, to have the least amount of impact to travelers and our local folks. And so we did choose the 78 days to be ready and operational for our busy Fourth of July kickoff to our summer tourism season.”

Tourism Impact

However, Jackson’s loss is a short-term gain for surrounding airports. Yellowstone Regional Airport Manager Aaron Buck told Cowboy State Daily that Cody will add at least one United Airlines flight per day during the Jackson closure – and Jenkins said other airports in the region will take some of the overflow as well.

“Some of the airlines have added additional service to Idaho Falls,” she said. “So a lot of the surrounding airports, as you can imagine – Bozeman, Cody – have all been in touch with us and prepared themselves for a little additional influx of passengers due to our closure.” 

Jenkins added that because of the lease the airport has with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the scope of the project is limited to replacing the existing runway, not extending or widening it in any way.

“Because of our location inside Grand Teton National Park, we have some commitments to our lease, we cannot be lengthening or extending this runway without their approval. So we are as big as we will ever be here at the Jackson airport.”

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Teton County Property Taxes Soar As Property Values Climb Out Of Control

in Teton County/News
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images
19247

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

This is not the Jackson of Greg Prugh’s youth. 

Driving slowly through a congested downtown neighborhood full of three-story modern, cube-like houses with big windows and decks, Prugh ticked off price tags for the properties that had recently sold — $5 million, $8 million and $10 million listing prices are now the norm.

Finding a house – or condo, for that matter – under $1 million is pretty much unheard of at this point, Prugh said.

As a former developer and current founder and owner of Prugh Real Estate, he’s watched real estate prices double in the past two years as increasing numbers of out-of-state buyers snatch up high-cost properties, siphoning off supply while demand continues to rise.

“Two years ago, everything went crazy.” he said. “Values doubled and really started ripping. Now, we’ve reached a tipping point.”

The soaring cost of houses in Teton County has led to more than just a housing shortage that has caused many to sell their homes or move to neighboring communities more than an hour away.

Record-High Property Taxes

The rising values have also led to record-high property taxes, as evidenced by the tax notices sent out just sent out last week. 

Around 60% of Teton County residents saw property taxes spike by upwards of 30% to 50%. The remaining 40% saw even larger increases of 50% or higher.

“This is by far the biggest increase I’ve seen in the five years since I’ve been in office,” Teton County Assessor Melissa “Mel” Shinkle told Cowboy State Daily Monday. “It’s been really tough on people and left them with lots of questions.”

Shinkle said she’d just finished a phone conversation with a Jackson resident calling to inquire about his bill. Residents have a 30-day period in which to dispute their bills, and Shinkle said she’s heard from many.

The gentleman she spoke with was questioning the $27,000 increase over last year’s property tax bill. Shinkle explained his house was now assessed at $9 million, which came as a big shock to him. 

In Wyoming, property taxes are applied to land and anything attached to it, such as homes, buildings and fences, all at fair market value. Currently, industrial properties are taxed based on 11.5% of their value, while residential, agricultural and other property are taxed at 9.5% of their value. Wyoming counties then have the option of charging up to 12 mills, or $12, of tax for every $1,000 in assessed value.

Currently, Teton County levies 8 of its 12 mills, a figure determined by the county commission, which will revisit the topic in August.

Residents Shocked At Increase

Given the soaring property values, some residents have been shocked to learn just how much their properties were now worth, Shinkle said, and how much they can be charged in taxes.

“Most people don’t follow the housing market. They know that prices are up, and they’ve seen the sales, but unless they are looking at what their neighbor’s property sold for, they really have no idea how much property values have gone up,” she said.

For some customers, the conversation ends there. Others, however, respond like deer in headlights as they scramble to make sense of the figure.

These are the people who keep county assessors like Shinkle from sleeping at night.

“There’s always one person who haunts you,” she said.

For her, it’s a 93-year-old woman living in a coveted area of town where values have skyrocketed. The woman, who has lived and worked here for most of her life, is on a fixed income. 

Last year, her property taxes were $9,624. This year, however, they rose by almost 100% to total $19,558.

“What does she do?” Shinkle asked. “For people on fixed incomes, this is really hard on them.”

Legislative Action

Teton and other counties are in a real bind to offer solutions for these people, Shinkle said, and to date, there aren’t a lot to offer because changes to property tax policies must be handled at the legislative level.

To that end, Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, a member of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, helped shepherd a bill through the Legislature’s recent budget session that gives counties the authority as of July 1 to create an optional property tax refund program that takes effect.

Under the program, residents who qualify based on their incomes and assets can apply for a refund of up to 50% of their prior year’s taxes.

Currently, the state has a similar property tax refund program in place, but Yin said the committee brought the bill forward in the event that the Legislature decided not to appropriate funds for the program.

The local property tax refund program will take a year to get up and running, Yin estimated.

Yin also saw a 60% increase in his property taxes on his two-bedroom condo, which has more than doubled in value since he purchased it in 2018.

“Affordability in general is an issue as we experience growth,” he said. “The cost of living is pricing many people out who can’t afford to live here (in Teton County).”

He’s heard about the issue from many of his constituents, he said, and said one measure he plans to bring forth in the Legislature in the future is the homestead exemption, which would lower taxes for property owners who live in a particular county throughout the year.

“I’m hearing a lot from people who want to do more about property taxes and housing issues in general,” he said.

Where Do Property Taxes Go?

Though it’s exhausting, Shinkle said she doesn’t mind all the calls from her constituents questioning the skyrocketing taxes.

Approximately 75% of these taxes go to schools, she said, and this year Teton County will be contributing mightily.

The remainder goes to finance city and county services.

As of today, Teton County has an approximate market value of $33,789,565,552, which would amount to about $25.7 million in property taxes.

As someone moving to Jackson from Torrington, those figures are mind-blowing for Shinkle, who has sympathy for the residents who are struggling to pay their tax bills.

The first half of taxes are due by Nov. 10, and are considered delinquent after that point unless the total figure is paid by Dec. 31. After the first half is paid, residents then have until May 10 to pay off the bill.

As for relief programs, there aren’t many available, Shinkle said. Those who meet income qualifications can apply to defer payment of the second half of up to 50% of their property taxes up to 50%, although interest will be applied to the unpaid portion.

Those who are in default of taxes might also have their homes auctioned off if they fail to pay by the deadline.

“That’s the most disappointing part,” Shinkle said. “We don’t have much property tax relief in Wyoming. It’s tough, and people are not going to be able to live here.”

Teton County Denies WYDOT Request To Build Its Own Employee Housing On State-Owned Property

in Teton County/News
16874

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Employee housing proposed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation to keep snow plow drivers and highway patrol troopers living in the community they serve has been rejected by Teton County’s planning commission.

WYDOT has proposed using its 14.4-acre site in the Hog Island area of Jackson to build 28 residential units to house department employees in the area, about half of whom now live in neighboring communities and are sometimes unable to reach Jackson because of bad road conditions, according to department Director Luke Reiner.

“It’s about public safety,” he said. 

But the planning commission in December unanimously rejected a department request to change the area’s zoning to allow the project to proceed.

The vote is the latest development in WYDOT’s struggle to find housing for employees in an area where available housing is very limited.

More than half of WYDOT’s 36 Jackson employees live outside of Teton County in neighboring communities, including plow drivers, maintenance workers, drivers services staff and Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP) troopers, Reiner said.

This poses a problem, he noted, particularly in bad weather when those employees can be stranded on the wrong side of an avalanche or blocked pass, impacting their ability to provide vital services with sufficient emergency response times. 

The department started taking a serious look at the housing situation around three years ago when Reiner took over as director and saw that it was largely the WHP troopers and snowplow operators living outside the county which affected response times.

Keith Compton, a WYDOT district engineer, said in-town housing would also ease the travel burden faced by the employees, many of who live on the other side of Teton Pass from Jackson and must travel Highway 22, one of the state’s busiest two-lane highways, in an area prone to avalanches.

Recruiting has also been affected by the lack of housing Reiner said, noting the agency is down by six snowplow drivers in Teton County.

Offering housing would help in recruiting and filling open positions, Reiner told Cowboy State Daily.

No Vacancies

For at least the last four years, Teton County rental units have been filled, according to Stacy Stoker, housing manager for Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing, with more than 1,000 applicants waiting to move into units as they become available.

“It’s just next to impossible for anyone to find anything to rent,” she said.

Rentals, when they do become available, are exorbitantly expensive, with studio apartments going for more than $2,000 a month and three-bedroom units renting for upwards of $3,667 monthly. The costs of these units have increased by 137% since 2008, according to a recent data rental report by the housing department. 

Buying property is equally prohibitive, Stoker said, with the average price of a condo running around $1 million and $3 million for a single-family home. 

Given the skyrocketing cost of real estate and lack of availability in Jackson, Reiner said that WYDOT decided building on its own property seemed like the best solution.

Building employee housing on government-owned land is not unprecedented in the region. Teton County Weed and Pest provides on-site housing at their facility in the area.  

“Not Appropriate For The Neighborhood”

But planning commission members said they could not support the change in zoning for WYDOT’s land because the entire Hog Island neighborhood is currently in the process of being rezoned. Commission members felt they needed a better understanding of future plans for the entire neighborhood before making a decision on the WYDOT land, according to Chris Neubecker, director of planning and building services for Teton County.

Neubecker told Cowboy State Daily that the commission also had concerns about traffic and water quality as well as “the size and scale of the future WYDOT housing development or other permitted uses that would be allowed by the new zoning would not be appropriate for this neighborhood.”

The planning commission plays an advisory role for the Teton County Board of Commissioners, which will make the decision on the Transportation Department’s zoning change request after a public hearing on March 1.

The rezoning request has the support of Teton County Engineer Amy Ramage, who said adequate water for the housing would not be a problem because the development could tie into a system built in 2018 for a nearby school.

“I strongly support the intent of the project to house critical workers near their place of employment,” Ramage wrote in comments to the planning commission, noting the project has the potential to improve the level of safety and service to the community.

She also said it would decrease miles traveled by WYDOT employees, which, along with providing affordable housing for service workers, is a goal of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Integrated Transportation Plan.

The Teton County Housing Department likewise green-lighted the proposal noting the need for affordable housing for employees.

The Teton County Road and Levee Department gave its blessing as well, saying it did not see any issues with the proposed zone change as it relates to local roads. 

Teton County school Superintendent Gillian Chapman voiced concerns regarding the speed limit in front of the elementary school as well as lack of a traffic light but said that WYDOT has indicated a willingness to install appropriate signage. 

However, the project also had opposition.

In a letter responding to the proposal, area resident Rosi De Haan said that adding 28 units would completely change the neighborhood.

She pointed to complaints about the way dirt piles and gravel are stored on the property and said the addition of new residents to the neighborhood would have a negative impact.

“This massive addition of people would also have a negative impact on our precious aquifer and there is an issue about how such a complex would take care of sewage,” she wrote.

In fact, WYDOT is not required to obtain the county’s permission to build the housing units on its own property.

But Reiner said in the interest of maintaining good partnerships with the communities it serves, the department is going through the application process as was suggested by the county. The fees to apply cost WYDOT $1,629.

“We work really hard to be partners with our local entities, counties, municipalities,” he said, “so that’s why we said, ‘yeah, we’ll work through the process.”

Funding

The WYDOT employee housing project is expected to cost $16.5 million and will be built in phases as funding allows.

The agency is hopeful some funding for the project will come from the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – formerly known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The 28 proposed units would be a mix of single- and multi-family two-story units to be built adjacent  to the 49,603-square foot WYDOT facility that houses the driver’s licenses services, vehicle storage and a maintenance shop. 

The agency has not yet determined whether the employee housing would be free to the employees as part of the employment package.

“Typically, it is provided at no cost to the employee in order to encourage recruitment and retention in areas with housing challenges, usually in remote locations,” said Doug McGee, a department spokesman. “However, with this being very early in the process, those details have not been developed.”

Reiner refrained to comment on whether the agency will move forward with plans to build should the board of county commissioners reject the zone change. He reiterated his desire to work with the community and leaders to follow the process.

“If there’s an eventual rejection,” he said, “then one has to weigh options.”

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Tax Returns Show Teton County Has Highest Average Income In Nation

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The average income for Teton County residents has increased more than eight-fold in the last 30 years, growing to become the largest average income of any county in the nation, according to an analysis of tax returns.

Jonathan Schechter, an economic analyst in Jackson, said his analysis showed the average adjusted gross income for Teton County residents in 2019 was $312,442, marking the first time any county in the nation recorded an AGI of more than $300,000. Schechter, who also serves as a Jackson Town Council member, predicted more growth in the future.

“These are insane numbers,” Schechter wrote in the newsletter issued by his company CoThrive. “Yet what’s really nuts is that these figures are from 2019; i.e., the year before COVID-19 migrants started flocking to Jackson Hole. As a result, 2020’s numbers should be much higher, and 2021’s numbers nuttier still.”

According to Schechter’s analysis, between 1989 and 2019, the average income listed in tax returns from Teton County grew from $38,339 to $312,442.

That put Teton County well ahead of New York County, New York, which was in second place for average income at $212,534.

The county’s AGI was also more than four times as high as the national average AGI of $75,694.Most of the income, 75%, was generated by investments rather than wages, Schechter said.

“In 2019, Teton County’s mean per-return non-wage income alone was $235,186, 11% higher than New York’s total income figure,” he wrote.

The increase in the AGI has been accompanied by an increase in charitable contributions, Schechter said, which grew by 72% between 2015 and 2019 to average $33,710.

“Overall, in 2019 Teton County residents claimed 10.8% of their total AGI as charitable contribution,” he wrote. “This, too, led the nation, the first time we’d done so.”

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Teton County Sets Up Website To Report People Who Are Violating Mask Mandates

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Two members of the Teton County Commission on Tuesday signaled concern when hearing about a new webpage that enables residents to report on mask violations in Jackson and surrounding areas.

The sheriff of Teton County, however, said there is no enforcement behind it and it was built to alleviate the high numbers of phone calls for and against the mark mandate that come into county dispatch.

At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron both expressed apprehension that a page was built without their knowledge on the county’s COVID website that allows citizens to file a report against individuals or businesses who are not abiding by the Teton County mask mandate.

“I have a lot of problems with this. I think it’s a complete overreach of our government,” Epstein said at the meeting.

“Secondly, I don’t even know who authorized it.  It wasn’t in the [mask] order,” he said. “I think that we need to have a cease and desist on it immediately. There’s already a lot of mistrust in our community and in the country, and I think this is only exacerbating that.”

Commissioner Barron was quick to agree noting that the new webpage was a surprise to him as well.

“I too am very troubled by this,” Barron said. “We’ve got a community that’s worked really hard trying to stamp out COVID. And I don’t see this as a positive step forward. And I am curious where this came from and how this came to be I did not see this in the order.”

Keith Gingery, Chief Deputy Attorney for Teton County, explained the webform was newly created because the last time there was a mask mandate individuals wanting to report violations would call the Teton County Sheriff’s department.

“People were calling dispatch and they were tying up the line,” Gingery said. “The idea was, and I don’t know all the details, was so people weren’t calling dispatch for this.”

Later in the meeting, Sheriff Carr concurred that the webform was set-up with his knowledge through Public Health to alleviate phone calls that dispatch was receiving.

“Dispatch just doesn’t need to get every phone call from somebody reporting that so and so is not wearing a mask in Albertsons,” Carr said.  “That just overwhelms our dispatch center in a real big hurry.”

Epstein was not satisfied with the explanation.

“I still feel like this is creating an environment of mistrust within our community, more divnisioning, more factioning,” he said.  “We’re pitting people against law enforcement unnecessarily and I’m worried.”

Carr said he was “having a hard time following [Epstein’s] logic” but acknowledged that masks are a “very polarizing issue.”

“So I just don’t want to cut off the public’s ability if they feel it necessary to report,” he said. “I just don’t want those phone calls clogging up our dispatch center.”

On Wednesday, Carr told Cowboy State Daily that the site was just a “management tool” with no enforcement behind it.

“We’re not trying to create anything for neighbors to report neighbors,” he said. “We’re not going to enforce it. What we’ve done in the past is if Public Health tells us there are 25 complaints at a location, we might go there and talk to the owners. But we’re not going to enforce it.”

“We’re not encouraging people to use it. But there are people in our community — like any community — who want to vent whether it be for the masks or against the masks,” he said. “This is a tool for them to vent.”

Commissioner Barron, on Wednesday, told Cowboy State Daily he was satisfied with Carr’s explanation.

“I know there is no law enforcement with this and I’m fine with that,” Barron said. “If people feel like they have an ear when they email in, if public health has time to do this, then I’m fine with that.

“But the expectation that a police officer or a deputy sheriff is going to show up, people have to let that go. It’s not going to happen,” he said.

The commission agreed to table the issue until they could have conversations with the public health department.

Calls to the Teton County public health department have yet to be returned.

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Teton County Implements New Mask Order, In Effect Until At Least Sept. 4

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

After reviewing all public comments submitted this week and in consulting with state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, Teton County’s health officer has implemented a new countywide facemask mandate that will be in effect until at least Sept. 4, the county announced Thursday.

Dr. Travis Riddell put the order in place on Thursday afternoon and it will expire after Sept. 4 unless the Teton County Board of Commissioners or the Jackson Town Council, or both, decide to extend it.

The order requires people to wear masks inside any business or government facility open to the public, health care facilities or while riding on public transportation. This mandate will also extend to K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions, requiring all students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear masks.

There are exceptions to the order, including if a person has a medical condition that would affect their breathing by wearing a mask.

“Taking into account the public comment submitted and looking at the current high transmission of COVID-19 in Teton County, it is important to issue this health order to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Riddell said. “Wearing a face mask is one of the many preventative public health measures along with staying home when sick and the COVID-19 vaccines to help slow the transmission of COVID-19 in the community and keep our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. We ask the entire community to work together to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect those in our community who are more vulnerable or who are not able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The order doesn’t mandate mask usage in any outdoor situations.

This is the first of Wyoming’s 23 counties to implement a new mask order since the statewide mask mandate expired in mid-March. Teton County kept its mask order in place longer than any other county in the state, letting it expire in early May.

As of Thursday, Teton County had 181 active coronavirus cases.

Gov. Mark Gordon has refused to implement any new health mandates, masks or otherwise. However, he is letting Wyoming cities, counties and school districts decide for themselves on whether or not a mask mandate is appropriate.

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Teton County Search and Rescue Saves Two Hikers Friday Night

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County Search and Rescue officers had a busy start to their weekend, spending Friday night looking for two different groups of hikers reported as returning home late.

Both search efforts ended with the hikers found safe.

On Friday night, an Idaho Falls man called to report his sister and her two daughters were late returning from Darby Canyon. They had planned to hike up to the Wind Cave, enter partway and then come back out.

The woman and her daughters were five hours late returning home when the man called.

A Teton County Search and Rescue member living in Teton County responded to the trailhead and found the trio at their vehicle. Their hike took longer than anticipated and all were safe and OK.

Another call was made at around 11 p.m. Friday, when a woman reported her sister and brother-in-law were overdue in returning from a hike at Table Mountain and could be lost.

Search and Rescue sent two teams out, one up the Face Trail and another up the North Teton Trail. The volunteers arrived at the trailhead around 1 a.m. and set out on the search.

Around an hour later, the team on North Teton Trail found the missing hikers, who were unhurt, but relieved to see help arrive.

The volunteers escorted the hikers back to the trailhead.

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Hughes Charitable Trust Donates $10 Million Toward Private Housing in Teton County

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By Cowboy State Daily

The unprecedented $10 million gift for affordable housing comes with a message to the human services professionals in Teton County: we see you and we value your commitment to our community. 

The $10 million dollar gift made by the Hughes Charitable Foundation is the single largest private donation toward affordable housing in the history of Teton County. Wayne and Molly Hughes said, “We wanted to do something meaningful to support our community’s safety net workers. They are the unseen heroes of our community, and we want to help ensure that they can continue to meet our community’s needs in perpetuity.” 

A recent survey found that more than half of all Human Service Council (HSC) employees are paying more than 50% in rental rates than what they can afford. HSC comprises the 10 non-profit human service agencies that work together to meet the needs of our most vulnerable community members. 

Anne Cresswell, Executive Director of the Housing Trust, said “It is disturbing to know that so many of our essential human service providers are priced out of Jackson. The fact is, we need these frontline workers to live in Jackson, so they can continue to handle 24-hour crises with our community’s at-risk children and families. This historic gift will make it possible for dedicated human service professionals to come home to stable, proximate, affordable housing at the end of a long day.” 

Sarah Cavallaro, Executive Director of Teton Youth and Family Services, said “This gift is a game changer for essential professionals who need to live where they work. The impact of this gift is twofold: we can attract and retain human service workers, and we can stabilize essential services for our community’s most vulnerable populations.” 

This generous gift will enable the Housing Trust to accelerate its next project and break ground in the summer of 2022. By 2023, 10 essential human service organizations and three public service entities will have the opportunity to offer stable, secure housing to key employees. 

The 10 Human Services Council organizations are: Senior Center of Jackson Hole, Community Entry Services, Community Safety Network, Curran-Seely Foundation, One22 Resource Center, Teton Literacy Center, Children’s Learning Center, Climb Wyoming, Jackson Hole Community Counseling and Teton Youth and Family Services. The Human Services Council, formed in 1984, strives to bring non-profit human service agencies together to ensure that urgent, core and essential services are available, integrated and accessible to vulnerable, at-risk, and in-crisis community members in Teton County. The three public service entities are: Teton County Sheriff Department, Jackson Police Department and Teton County-Jackson Fire/EMS. 

The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust is a non-profit affordable housing developer dedicated to cultivating a vibrant community through housing. Since 1991, the Housing Trust has developed or acquired 181 homes that have served more than 525 people in Teton County. 

The Hughes Charitable Foundation is Wyoming-based and dedicated to funding projects that serve our state’s vulnerable populations. You can learn more about the foundation at hughescf.org. 

To learn more about each of the HCS organizations, you can visit these links below: 

Teton Youth and Family Services 

One22 Resource Center 

Teton Literacy Center 

Senior Center of Jackson Hole 

Community Safety Network https://www.dropbox.com/s/b6w96bgp1pp4owr/HT_AnnualReport_2020_v6.pdf?dl=0 

Community Entry Services 

Curran-Seely Foundation 

Children’s Learning Center 

Climb Wyoming 

Jackson Hole Community Counseling 

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B. Wayne Hughes, Jr.: A Call To Care

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By B. Wayne Hughes Jr., Chairman, Hughes Charitable Foundation
B. Wayne Hughes Jr. is a husband, father, rancher and philanthropist who calls Jackson home.

Many of our fellow citizens here in Teton County are not aware of the social services provided by our local nonprofit groups. From food banks to after school programs, from career counseling to just having a safe bed to spend the night, these selfless servants and their organizations strengthen our community in these and many other ways to make our community safer, more connected and humane.

Many, if not all, of us know the meteoric rise in housing costs and goods and services.  Teton County’s hourly wage earners and frontline workers have, and are, being priced out of the real estate market.  Homeownership in Teton County is out of reach for them.  Forever.  It is more than a heavy lift just to pay the average $2,400 monthly rent for a studio/one-bedroom here in Jackson on the wages being offered to workers.

As a result, even our restaurants and visitor services have cut back operations due to a lack of labor.  Some local healthcare workers and hotel employees are having their housing subsidized by their employers. Construction and restaurant employees are commuting an average of 60 minutes each way to reach their jobs here in Teton County.

The local nonprofit health and human services community is no different.  Hiring and retaining skilled, trained and committed employees is now at a crisis point.  Even well-established and longtime organizations are now losing their best and brightest due to this crisis.

Supply and demand are foundational to understanding our current housing situation. Demand, spurred on by buyers from all over the country, is at an all-time high.  Most of us here in Teton County are a product of that very same demand.  We also have no control over demand; it is what it is. Supply, defined by what’s available and what’s yet to be built, cannot keep up. Hence the rise in prices and the decline in affordability.  Supply will always be a challenge due to political, geographical, environmental and conservation considerations. Permanently protected lands – Forest Service, National Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife reserves and conservation easements – account for over 97% of all land in the county.  This is a good thing.  It’s one reason why we all love it here.

The remaining lands are inside the Town of Jackson or Teton County and under the management of elected officials.  We hear of their concern, their sympathies and their complaints.  To date, no politically elected official has stepped forward with any meaningful ideas on how to deal with what is now a large scale housing crisis for many, including our health and human services community.  Government needs to facilitate zoning and approvals that allow for nonprofits and private companies to take on new developments – and then government needs to get out of the way.

It is imperative that we stand for, protect and support our health and human services community – and our firefighters, law enforcement and healthcare workers – by building housing for them.  Without them, we live in a completely different place. A poorer place.

Teton County is not for everyone, but for those of us who call it home it’s time to start caring, time to start speaking out, and it’s time to start giving.  Many of us have seen the problem and it is us.  Hopefully our recent citizens will focus more on joining our community than being ex-citizens from where they came.  Our recent citizens are mostly well-to-do and have capacity to give, but have little knowledge of our current situation and the need for their assistance in addressing the crisis.  Our local real estate brokerage community can and should be ambassadors for how new residents can become involved by conveying information about our community and how new residents can become involved.  It is the real estate community that’s helping to channel 3 billion dollars of investment into this county and they are not doing it for free.  There’s room for their leadership.

Established enclaves need to understand that the often invisible support that sustains their pleasant lives needs help and that help may include new development in places where they’d rather not see it.  We need more of our local workforce living locally.

And to those that say “the problem cannot be solved so why try?” – they need to look into their hearts and realize that “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  It may not make a difference to you, but it does to someone you know.

Start Caring.

You will soon hear more news about projects coming from our foundation’s leadership.  But we are only one group.  This call is to you, to get involved now.  Below are several of the not-for-profit health and human services organizations that you can contact and pledge support.

Teton Youth and Family Services

One22

Teton Literacy Center

Senior Center of Jackson Hole

Community Safety Network

Community Entry Services

Curran-Seely Foundation

Children’s Learning Center

Climb Wyoming

Jackson Hole Community Counseling

Stronger JH

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Teton County Rent Is 61% Higher Than Rest of Wyoming

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County continued to top the state for household income in 2020, according to state figures, exceeding the state average by almost 62%, according to state figures.

But the figures show Teton County residents would need that extra income to cover apartment and house rental rates almost 61% higher than the rest of the state.

Figures included in the latest version of the state Economic Analysis Division’s publication “Wyoming and County Profiles,” the “mean” or average annual income for households in Teton County was set at $132,531.

The statewide average, meanwhile, was set at $81,880, according to the report prepared by compiling various studies completed by state agencies.

The state’s average household income was above the national average of $78,500.

The figures showed that as a state, Wyoming’s household income increased by about 3.3% from 2019 figures.

Teton County was followed for household income by Sublette County at $92,755, while Niobrara had the lowest average household income at $54,980.

But the high household income in Teton County came with the highest median rental rates for homes in the state at $1,376 per month. According to the report, about 1,400 of the county’s 3,367 rental units rented had a monthly rental price of $1,500 to $2,999.

Another 821 rented for $1,000 to $1,499 and 1,120 rented for less than $1,000 a month.

The state’s median rental rate, by comparison, was $855, with more than half of the rental properties — 39,493 of 61,992 — renting for less than $1,000 per month.

The lowest median rent was found in Niobrara County at $560 per month. Of the county’s 134 rental units, 107 rented for less than $1,000 per month.

The median is a midpoint in a range of numbers.

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Teton County to Rescind Mask Order Early, Barring Spike In COVID Cases

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Barring a spike in coronavirus cases, Teton County will rescind its mask mandate early due to low infection numbers and high vaccination rates.

Teton County’s mask order is expected to end May 7 instead of May 17 as originally planned, the county health department announced Thursday. This order required everyone in the county to continue wearing masks or face coverings while in public places.

“This is dependent on local COVID-19 case numbers remaining at their current levels or continuing to decrease,” the announcement said.

Gov. Mark Gordon in March rescinded the statewide health order requiring the use of facemasks in public places. However, Teton County was granted a variance to leave its facemask order in place.

The county has the highest coronavirus vaccination rate in the state, with more than half of its residents (52.8%, according to the Wyoming Department of Health) being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Despite the end to Teton County’s mask mandate, the county’s schools — along with most other schools across the state — must continue to require the use of face coverings until May 16 under one of the state’s remaining public health orders.

“It is important to remember that many people in our community are still susceptible to COVID-19,” the announcement said. “This includes children younger than 16 years old, people who are immunocompromised, and those who are not yet fully vaccinated.”

Estimates show nearly 25% of Wyoming’s population has been fully vaccinated against coronavirus so far, including 32% of adults 18 and over and more than 55% of adults 65 and over.

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Teton County Extends Mask Order Until Mid-May

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

As much of the state begins to return to some semblance of normalcy in the downturn of the pandemic, one Wyoming county is continuing its mask order for at least another month.

Teton County has extended its requirement for people to wear face coverings while in public places until May 17, two months after the statewide mandate was allowed to expire by Gov. Mark Gordon.

The Teton County order requires people 12 and older to wear a face covering while inside or in line to enter any business, local or municipal government facility, health care facility or while riding on public transportation.

Commercial business employees, as well as government staff, are required to wear a face covering when they are within six feet of customers, clients, volunteers or other employees.

All businesses must post notices in a clearly visible location stating masks are required.

However, people with certain medical conditions are exempt from the mask order.

This news also follows the state’s decision to extend mask orders for schools until the end of the month, although some counties have received variances from this order due to low coronavirus case numbers.

As of Wednesday, Teton County had 31 active coronavirus cases. There were three coronavirus patients hospitalized at St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson.

This is the second time the county has extended its mask order since Gordon lifted the statewide mandate.

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Teton County Keeping Mask Order in Place Through Mid-April

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County has been granted a variance to keep its mask mandate in place until at least mid-April, the county’s health department announced Friday.

Teton County health officer Dr. Travis Riddell requested a local health order to allow the county to keep its mask requirement in place until April 16, unless rescinded beforehand. The order was approved Friday.

Teton County’s mask order requires people 12 and older to wear a face covering when gathering in a public place or business where they are unable to socially distance.

The statewide mask mandate will be removed on Tuesday nearly three months after its implementation.

Gov. Mark Gordon said earlier this week that his decision to lift the public health orders in place for months reflected the state’s continually improving health metrics and was consistent with his approach of balancing public health with protecting livelihoods.

Wyoming has seen a declining number of active coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, and has seen significant success in delivering the COVID-19 vaccine, with the state’s most vulnerable residents now having access to the shot, he said.

“I thank the people of Wyoming for their commitment to keeping one another safe throughout this pandemic,” Gordon said. “It is through their efforts that we have kept our schools and businesses operating and our economy moving forward. I ask all Wyoming citizens to continue to take personal responsibility for their actions and stay diligent as we look ahead to the warmer months and to the safe resumption of our traditional spring and summer activities.” 

As of Friday, Teton County had 86 active cases, the second-highest in the state behind Laramie County.

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World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb To Return at Jackson’s Snow King

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By Tom Ninnemann, Cowboy State Daily

The Jackson Town Council on Monday unanimously approved the staging of the 2021 Snow Devils World Championship Hill Climb event March 25 through 28 with a cap of 1,000 attendees permitted in the venue. 

The motion to approve the 44th annual event at Snow King Mountain was made by Councilman Jim Rooks, who specified that the event would be evaluated each day for compliance with specified restrictions.

“ … With nightly debriefing sessions, to involve the chief of police, Michelle Weber, Snow Devils leadership, and the mayor of Jackson Hole with the understanding that a failure to reach the subjected conditions and restrictions listed in the staff report may include a reduction of the next day’s attendees,” he said.

The event was approved with the understanding that attendance could be reduced based on the nightly evaluation and the status of the town’s risk level. 

Also to be taken under consideration would be the behaviors of those waiting in cue to enter the venue.

The annual event, which draws hundreds from around the world, was canceled in 2020 because of coronavirus concerns.

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Teton County Search and Rescue Saves Eight Stranded Snowmobilers

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Eight snowmobilers were saved on Thursday by Teton County Search and Rescue after becoming lost on Beartooth Pass.

According to the SAR team, it was contacted Thursday morning by Park County to do an aerial search for the group of snowmobilers that were reportedly lost on the pass.

The group hadn’t been seen or heard from since Wednesday and spent the night out in the elements.

Park County’s Search and Rescue team determined the group’s location, about six miles from the nearest trailhead, and requested a helicopter evacuation.

The aircraft loaded up two Teton County SAR volunteers and a ranger from Grand Teton National Park and flew to Cody to refuel. The team then flew to the site and successfully transported all eight snowmobilers to safety.

In the past few weeks, the team has responded to incidents in Fremont, Lincoln, and Park counties, as well as Grand Teton National Park. The team has been called out more this year than all of last season.

“We still have very motivated rescuers who are eager to help out in any way they can,” said Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr. “We have this amazing resource available and if another county needs it, we’re absolutely happy to help out.”

Since the beginning of the year, the team has been called out 31 times — responding to events including five fatalities, three involving avalanches. Of the 31 responses, 24 resulted in active missions, more than during the entire previous winter season.

Three people have died in avalanches in northwestern Wyoming since mid-February, two snowboarders and one snowmobiler.

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Teton County Residents Live Longer Than Almost Anyone Else in the U.S.

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County residents are expected to live longer than most of the people in the United States, according to a recent analysis.

Last week, U.S. News and World Report released its ranking of America’s 25 healthiest communities and Teton County made the cut at number 16.

Teton County’s overall life expectancy is 83.5 years, compared to the national median at 77.9 years.

Teton County (population: 21,294) received an overall score of 81.8 out of a possible 100 in the report and was considered No. 1 when it came to infrastructure, population health and the environment. When compared to other rural, high-performing communities, Teton County came in at fifth place.

The county actually dropped in its score over the last year, as it was ranked the sixth overall healthiest community in 2019.

Its lower ranking likely stemmed from the county’s poorer scores when it came to equity (43), housing (47) and public safety (58). The county also ranked above average when it came to the population in the community without health insurance at 16%. compared to the nation’s median of 10.6%.

The highest ranking in the report went to Los Alamos County, New Mexico (population: 17,950), which received a score of 100. It was considered to perform the best when it came to population health, housing and the environment.

The lowest ranking of the 25 was Dallas County, Iowa (population: 66,135), which received a score of 79.1. The county was reported to perform best in the categories of infrastructure, economy and population health.

The news organization studied nearly 3,000 counties and county equivalents, measuring 84 factors that form and define the health of a community and its residents. It then narrowed that list down to 10 categories, ranging from the economy to public safety to housing.

The communities are scored on a 100-point scale based on their performance relative to one another across metrics and categories and are ranked based on those scores.

These 25 communities were narrowed down from the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the 500 healthiest communities.

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Teton County Opts Out of State Plans; Keeps Gyms, Hair Salons Closed

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Teton County’s gyms, hair salons and massage therapy services will remain closed until May 11, even though such services elsewhere in Wyoming will be allowed to open Friday.

Teton County officials, with the approval of Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, have implemented more stringent orders for the reopening of such businesses than what is in place at the state level.

Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton County’s health officer, said the county needs to continue reacting cautiously to changes in the coronavirus situation.

“It’s not a time to let our guard down,” he said in a news release. “We’re urging everyone in Teton County to err on the side of caution, especially those who may have more frequent interaction with others or are at higher risk.”

Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday announced that some of the public health orders issued in March closing schools and businesses would be relaxed on Friday. Among the orders to be relaxed were those closing gyms and businesses providing personal services, such as hair salons, tattoo parlors and cosmetologists.

All those businesses will be allowed to open on Friday if their owners and managers follow certain safeguards, such as requiring the use of cloth masks by customers and staff.

But Riddell, in his public health order extending the closures to May 11, noted that Teton County has a higher coronavirus infection rate and a higher hospitalization rate than the statewide average, requiring additional safeguards.

However, Teton County officials did end their “stay-at-home” order, which prohibited residents from meeting with anyone from outside their own household, effective Friday.

The state’s health order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people will be in place until at least May 15 and Teton County residents will now be able to follow the state rule rather than the more restrictive county rule.

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Teton County, Jackson Issue ‘Stay At Home’ Orders

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Teton County and Jackson officials issued separate but similar orders over the weekend for their residents to remain at their homes if at all possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Jackson’s order, adopted as an emergency ordinance by its town council, applied to all of the town’s residents, while the order issued by Teton County’s health officer applied to those age 65 and older and those suffering from high-risk medical conditions. Both were issued Saturday.

“(We) have seen mounting evidence that community-wide stay-at-home orders can have significant impacts on slowing the virus’ spread, particularly when implemented in the early phase of viral community spread,” said Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton County’s health officer. “We are in that phase now. I am absolutely in favor of a community-wide stay-at-home order.”

Both orders direct residents to stay at home except to perform tasks essential to health and safety, to obtain or deliver necessary supplies or services — such as groceries or medical supplies — to work at an essential business, to care for others or to take part in outdoor activities. In all cases, the orders required people to stay at least six feet away from each other.

Teton County and Jackson are the first Wyoming entities to issue “stay-at-home” orders.

Carl Pelletier, a public information officer and special events coordinator for Jackson, stressed the “stay at home” order is very different from the more restrictive “shelter in place” orders seen in other areas because a “stay at home” order allows people to go outside.

“When I hear ‘Shelter-in-Place’ I think of hunkering down in my basement during a tornado when growing up in the midwest, or not leaving my home due to a massive chemical spill occurring in West Jackson, or if there was an active shooter roaming through town a ‘Shelter-in-Place’ order might be instituted,” he wrote in an email to a reporter. “A ‘Stay-at-Home’ ordinance allows individuals to be outside their homes … raking leaves, hiking up Snow King, sitting on your lawn and soaking in some sun.” 

Teton County Spokesperson: Governor Gordon is Failing Us

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A public information specialist for Teton County had harsh words on Saturday for how Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist are handling the coronavirus epidemic.

Kristen Waters, who moved to Wyoming in 2014, lambasted Wyoming’s governor in a Facebook post she published late Saturday morning.

“Governor Gordon and our State Health Officer are failing us,” Waters said. “Especially when you consider our states (sic) massive elderly population and small town hospital capacity.”

“Many counties SHARE hospitals, that have 30 or less beds and 10 or less ventilators,” she continued. “Western states that surround us are all in a shelter in place but not us, we’re gonna let the numbers climb, allow hospitals to get inundated and watch people die.”

Adopting a sarcastic tone, Waters criticized citizens of Wyoming.

“But that’s cool because we’re cowboying up and doin’ it the Wyoming way, where essential businesses are firearm & ammunition and liquor stores,” she said.

Waters suggested the state’s counties should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to mandate “shelter-in-place” policies.

“At a minimum, the state should let counties do what is right for our own individual counties, instead of continually rejecting public health orders presented by our own public health officer that literally says the purpose is to limit PREVENTABLE death,” she wrote.

On Friday, Gordon and Harrist extended three existing statewide health orders through April 17.

These orders close public places including schools, prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more in a single room or confined space (including outdoors).

Bars, restaurants, coffee shops and some personal services businesses will also be closed through April 17. Food establishments can continue to provide take out and delivery services.

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