JACKSON — “These are insane numbers.”
That’s how local economic analyst and Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter describes income figures for Teton County culled from IRS tax return data.
What makes the figures so “insane”?
Consider this: According to the data compiled by Schechter based on 2019 IRS tax returns — the most recent figures available — Teton County’s mean, or average, adjusted gross income was $312,442. Not only was that the highest mean AGI in the nation for that year, it was also the first time any county had eclipsed $300,000 in mean AGI in history.
It was also almost exactly $100,000 more than the county that came in at No. 2 nationwide, New York County, New York, which is essentially uber-wealthy Manhattan Island. New York County had a mean AGI of $212,534, Schechter said.
As if those figures weren’t staggering enough, of Teton County’s mean AGI of $312,442 in 2019, the county’s “mean per-return non-wage income alone was $235,186, 11% higher than New York [County]’s total income figure,” Schechter wrote in his most recent CoThrive newsletter.
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In other words, 75% of Teton County’s income comes from investments and other non-wage sources, versus the national average of 31%.
Further illustrating the disparity between Teton County and counties across the rest of the country, Schechter said in an interview, the nearly $100,000 gap between Teton County at No. 1 and New York County at No. 2 is slightly greater than the gap between New York County and No. 63, Delaware County, Ohio, a wealthy suburban area outside Columbus. Meanwhile, the gap between Delaware County and last-place Rock County, Nebraska, coming in at No. 3,142, is just slightly less than that at $91,777, Schechter said, adding “that’s pretty amazing.”
And Schechter notes those are 2019 figures that don’t factor in the “COVID migration” of 2020 and 2021, which saw even more wealth move into Jackson Hole and surely will bump those figures skyward.
“Bottom line: If it feels like things are not just crazy, but spinning-out-of-control crazy, there’s a good reason for it,” Schechter said.
And it’s likely to only get crazier. Between 2018 and 2019, Teton County’s mean per-return AGI rose by $50,942, or 19.5%. Though the 2020 and 2021 tax return figures aren’t yet available, Schechter said it’s a good bet that those numbers will reflect a good amount more wealth having moved into the valley.
“It’s a crude rule of thumb, but between about 10% to 15% of our community turns over every year — probably closer to 10%,” Schechter told the News&Guide. “But the number of people who move here and will start claiming residence for the 2020 tax year and then the 2021 tax year, those are people who have exceptional amounts of wealth. ... I tend to be reluctant to speak unless it’s something I feel confident saying or I’m pretty confident being right about, and I’m confident that what we will see in 2020 is going to be far beyond 2019 and 2021 [will be beyond 2020].”
So what does all of this wealth mean for Teton County, and even for the state of Wyoming?
Locally, it provides both benefits and unique challenges, Schechter said. For example, on the plus side, Teton County’s tax return data demonstrates a large amount of charitable giving. In fact, he wrote, “2019’s $33,710 was the highest per-return contribution figure ever recorded, a full 72% higher than Teton County’s 2015 figure of $19,646 (the previous high).”
Unfortunately, it would appear that much of Teton County residents’ $501 million of charitable giving in 2019 is going outside the community, based on numbers reported by local nonprofits.
“It can’t be proven, but if we had a ton of that income staying in the county, our nonprofits would have a lot more money than they’re reporting,” Schechter said.
However, he did add that some of the new Teton County residents of means might be looking to make their mark locally, as reflected by the record amount — more than $19.7 million — raised by last year’s annual Old Bill’s Fun Run. Laurie Andrews, director of the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, which puts on Old Bill’s, was unable to be reached for comment Tuesday.
On the negative side of the ledger, he said, is what he calls the “Eco/Eco Dilemma” where the first “eco” refers to economic development and the second refers to ecosystem health.
“The dilemma lies in the sad fact that, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, every place on Earth that has developed a successful industrial or post-industrial economy has, in the process, compromised the health of its ecosystem,” Schechter wrote, noting that such an outcome is contrary to the county’s Comprehensive Plan goal to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem.”
Schechter is hopeful that Jackson Hole is able to find success in ecosystem preservation even though there is no blueprint for how to attain it over the last 250 years. The Town Council recently approved the formation of an ecosystem stewardship administrator position, and Schechter said he would like to see whoever fills that role create metrics or a model by which the town can accurately gauge success, though he acknowledges that is not an easy task.
“Our situation is complicated by the fact that we’re trying to do something that nobody has done in 250 years. So we are special,” he told the News&Guide. “But we are not unique in the fact that we are seeing incredible affordable housing problems, incredible transportation problems, incredible wealth inequality problems.
“We are unique in that we have all that to try to cope with, and we also are trying to preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem.”
When asked if the town and county are “flying blind” in trying to navigate the “Eco/Eco Dilemma” without a blueprint or firm plan, Schechter used his own father’s experience as a metaphor. His father was a pilot in the Korean War and was on a bombing run over North Korea when a shell blew up in his face, blinding him. In and out of consciousness and blinded, his father was talked down and able to successfully land the plane.
Comparing his father’s experience of literally flying blind to Jackson Hole leaders preserving the ecosystem without a road map, Schechter said: “It’s possible. Even even if you do something that seems as metaphorically impossible as flying blind, I’m here to tell you that I wouldn’t be here today if my father hadn’t done exactly that.”
Statewide, there is little benefit being reaped from Teton County’s wealth, according to Wenlin Liu, the chief economist for Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division.
Reason being, Wyoming has no income tax. Liu, who noted that Teton County has also been “No. 1 for years” in per capita personal income in a calculation done by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, mentioned some other initiatives that have been considered in the Legislature over the years, some of which have been advanced by local legislators. Included among them are the real estate transfer tax — which has been unsuccessfully brought forward by state Rep. Andy Schwartz the past couple of legislative sessions and is now being championed by Rep. Mike Yin, who shepherded it through the Joint Revenue Committee — and taxes on income above a certain threshold.
Schechter shared some of Liu’s points, saying that the two most obvious ways of benefiting from the wealth would be a real estate transfer tax, because of the people who are moving here, and an income tax.
Liu, who also acknowledged the difficulties skyrocketing home prices in Teton County create for the working class and their ability to remain in the area, said he’s not holding his breath on either a real estate transfer tax or any iteration of an income tax.
“It’s probably not immediate,” Liu said. “But it seems like this with any tax change. It’s going to take many years discussing back and forth for it to be successful.”
So, Schechter said, in the meantime: “We have no direct way of taking advantage of the wealth. The wealth can take advantage of us, but we have no way of taking advantage of it. It’s a one-way street.”