Jackson fireworks become flashpoint in ongoing funding debate

JACKSON — Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter caused a stir in the last week after he sent a snappy email to the Teton Board of Realtors, saying he wouldn’t support giving it $12,000 in town and county funds.

The Board of Realtors said it requested the money for the Fourth of July fireworks after the Rotary Club of Jackson Hole, which usually makes the ask, couldn’t for tax reasons. The show has traditionally received some degree of public funding.

Schechter, who noted multiple times that he loves fireworks and supports the Fourth of July spectacle, said his opposition to giving to the Teton Board of Realtors wasn’t about the show.

Rather, he wondered why an industry that sold nearly $2.5 billion worth of Jackson Hole property in 2020 — and whose agents he estimated made millions doing so — wanted public funds while those sales netted zero for the town and county.

Real estate transactions are not subject to local or state taxes.

“A $2 cup of coffee that I purchased a couple mornings ago contributed more to running our state and county and town than did any of the $2.46 billion worth of real estate sales,” Schechter told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “And to me that’s crazy.”

He also noted that the $12,000 request from the Teton Board of Realtors is more than was requested by social services organizations like Cultivate Ability and Voices JH.

Some didn’t appreciate Schechter’s letter, or its tone.

Realtor Devon Viehman said it was “discouraging, rude and beyond unnecessary.”

Schechter’s fellow Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers called it an “ill-informed finger-wagging,” and said she didn’t feel he had “done his homework.”

Board of Realtors President Des Jennings likewise lamented the dispatch, saying it had “glaring issues” and argued that the funds were just intended to be a “pass through” for the fireworks, not operational expenses like the other requests Schechter cited.

Jennings thought the issue could have been better resolved — “A phone call would’ve been much appreciated,” he said — and criticized what he saw as Schechter’s insinuation.

“There was a broad accusation that a large trade association with, at this point, over 600 members is not charitable and not giving back to the community in other ways,” he told the News&Guide. “That was a really unfortunate choice of words by the councilor.”

He pointed to tens of thousands that the Board of Realtors has given away, including $67,500 for personal protective equipment in schools, and said the board is working on an affordable housing fund, though he wasn’t able to provide many details.

Viehman said the group hopes to unveil details of the funding program in July.

“Good on them for doing that, and I hope it’s a really meaningful amount,” Schechter said. “We need millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I hope TBoR comes up with millions and millions and millions of dollars. That would be fabulous.”

Schechter offered apologies to anyone whom he may have offended with the wording of his letter, noting that he has friends in the real estate industry and made efforts to avoid doing so.

“I truly feel bad that people have gotten their feelings hurt or that TBoR thinks there’s a lack of respect on my part, but the issue has to be raised,” Schechter said. “This may not have been the best venue in which to raise it, but it’s the one that lent itself.”

Commissioners Mark Barron, Greg Epstein and Luther Propst did not respond to requests for comment. Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson was also unable to be reached Tuesday.

The Town Council already pared back the Board of Realtors’ budget request from $4,000 to $1,000, and the County Commission discussed doing something similar. Both numbers won’t be finalized until budget meetings conclude in June.

Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen, Chambers and Councilor Jim Rooks said they would support the funding this year, with Jorgensen and Rooks indicating they believe the larger issue raised by Schechter can be discussed at another time.

Commissioner Mark Newcomb felt similarly to Jorgensen and Rooks about the way Schechter chose to bring up the real estate industry’s lack of taxes.

“If it wasn’t the Board of Realtors it was going to be some other organization that stepped up to help fund the fireworks,” he said, “I think that issue is completely separate from any policy issues around the real estate industry and its impacts.”But he also felt Schechter’s “assessment of the facts” was correct.

“His fundamental point that the real estate industry is a massive part of our economy that’s not contributing any sales tax, or any tax at all, is right on,” Newcomb said.

Schechter estimated that local realtors made $147 million in commissions last year, a number he calculated by multiplying the $2.455 billion the industry sold in Jackson Hole in 2020 by 6%, a figure on the upper range of what’s typically quoted as a commission.

He argued that a chunk of that money should go toward offsetting the industry’s impacts, taking issue with the Teton Board of Realtors’ lack of support for a real estate transfer tax.

That levy, which has never received approval from the Wyoming Legislature, has long been touted as a way to mitigate the industry’s impacts on the local housing market.

Jennings said the Board of Realtors doesn’t typically take stances on statewide issues. It has members in multiple states, he said, and the statewide Wyoming Realtors Association, not the local board, takes positions on issues like the transfer tax.

County Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker said Schechter’s focus on the fireworks and Board of Realtors was “probably not” the best place to start the discussion but said she supported a real estate transfer tax overall.

“Do I expect Realtors to be really gung-ho and on board with that? Of course not,” she said. “I wouldn’t be looking to the Teton Board of Realtors to be carrying the banner.”

But Schechter shrugged off criticism about his letter, saying he hopes it leads to dialogue.

“If in response to all this the real estate community stops and asks itself, ‘What is the appropriate role for us to be playing?’ and ‘What kind of contributions can we make to the community?’ in terms of funding the services that really address our community’s character, that would be a great outcome to all this,” he said.