April 8 is last day of regular registration

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The Big Sky Fire Department held public hearings the week of March 25 to explain the reasoning behind its new tax proposal, which registered voters in Gallatin and Madison counties will decide on by May 7.

The department is proposing an annual 10.36 mill levy increase to the tune of $485,000 that would support hiring five new firefighters and cover some operational costs.

Currently, the department functions with two to three firefighters on duty at a time – inadequate to fulfill the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement of four per shift. The proposed new hires would allow it to meet that mandate.

“Our call volume has been steadily increasing, putting a strain on the system,” said Fire Chief Bill Farhat at the first of the six hearings. Meant to explain the financial needs and what the mill levy increase would mean, each of the hearings had only 1-2 attendees from the public.

“We didn’t get masses of people, but it wasn’t a wasted effort,” Farhat said afterward. “We had some great questions, and it was a good opportunity to talk with people.”

Some of those discussions revolved around a misunderstanding of the department’s funding levels, he said.

“People don’t realize how much money is generated by ambulance revenue from billing – it’s almost a quarter of our budget. That combined with resort tax, is almost half of our budget.”

He also reminded attendees that people who don’t live in Big Sky pay more than 70 percent of the district’s property taxes. All of those people can vote, Farhat said.

The mill levy would equate to a tax increase of $7.60 a month on a home with a taxable value of approximately $9,000, according to Farhat.

Although 70 percent of the department’s calls are medical, it also responds to structure and wildfires. Farhat noted that sequestration will affect the Forest Service’s ability to respond to wildfires this summer, and Big Sky Fire may have to be more involved in this effort locally.

He hopes two of the hires would be paramedics – meaning each shift would have a paramedic – and one of the hires would fill the role of Assistant Chief.

Even if voters approve the levy, the department will continue requesting funding from the Big Sky Resort Tax Board to cover operations and capital needs.

“If this gets voted down, we’ll continue on and do our best, but no one can come to me later and say you didn’t tell us,” Farhat said at the hearing. “I’m worried about it.”

The department has never been given a mill levy increase, although one was proposed in 2007.

The close of voting registration is April 8. However, late registration is possible through 8 p.m. on voting day, May 7, for the fire district election at the Gallatin County Elections Office in Bozeman.