By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – The six county commissioners responsible for public health, public safety and public works in Big Sky did something in late April that they rarely do: gather to discuss issues in a community relatively removed from their primary constituent bases.
Such meetings typically happen once a year, but due to robust attendance and plenty of public comment, they could become more frequent. Approximately 60 people showed up at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District boardroom for the April 28 meeting.
Madison County commissioners Dave Shulz, Ron Nye and Jim Hart made the trip east to attend, and Gallatin County commissioners Don Seifert, Joe Skinner and Steve White drove south from the Bozeman/Belgrade area. Big Sky straddles county lines, so about $10 million of property tax revenue went to Gallatin County in fiscal year 2015, and $14 million settled in Madison County coffers.
“You have all the elements of governance, without the governance.”
Although they weren’t formal in nature, representatives from a number of organizations made their case for joint county funding. Both counties are in the midst of complicated budget allocations that take several months to complete.
David Kack with the Big Sky Transportation District said Skyline bus service is on track to provide the highest ridership in its 10-year history.
Skyline is considering a $200,000 ask from each county—“significantly more than it used to be,” Kack said—but he believes adding more daily round trips between Bozeman and Big Sky justifies the cost.
Last December, he told EBS that, occasionally, drivers left close to 30 people behind at Skyline stops because buses were full.
Kack added that the increase in requested funding isn’t isolated to the two counties; the Transportation District is also asking for more money from Big Sky Resort Area District Tax Board, the Federal Transit Administration and other community organizations like Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Resort, the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club.
Kitty Clemens, executive director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, presented another transportation-related issue: the need for a long-term plan that would increase functionality and safety on highways 191 and 64, and inform the Montana Department of Transportation’s handling of those highways.
“We’re asking you to consider jointly funding a comprehensive transportation plan with MDT so we have basically a road map, for lack of a better term, in hand and we can start to think strategically,” Clemens said.
Developing such a model could help funnel federal Highway Trust Fund money to transportation needs in the area, she said. Clemens estimates a comprehensive transportation plan could cost more than $50,000.
Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, said the two counties could expect requests from the GRTF on behalf of the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum—formerly the Wastewater Solutions Forum—for resources pertaining to water and sewer issues in the area.
The scope of the working group’s concern is broad by design.
“No one is really looking at this issue holistically and how these different activities interact and relate to each other,” Gardner said, adding that Big Sky’s watershed has impacts downstream in both counties. “I really feel it’s a very important effort that needs to happen now, as we’re growing.”
The budget for the forum is $311,000, and Gardner said she would be putting together a proposal to each county for approximately $49,000 each. Phase one of the project—meeting with stakeholders to ascertain concerns and assess willingness to work collaboratively to address them—is complete.
Funding for phase one of the project was split between Lone Mountain Land Company and the Yellowstone Club, with each company paying $7,500.
Kevin Germain, who serves on BSRAD, opened his affordable housing update by commenting about the commissioners, “Thanks for coming up here—it’s awesome to have both of our parents in the same room.”
Germain has been working with a consultant to put together a piece of state legislation that could address the need for affordable housing in the area.
Germain is hoping to put the proposal before Montana state legislators at the next session in 2017. He’s working on creating a targeted economic development district and using funds generated inside that district to fund housing.
Currently, Germain’s group is trying to quantify the money such a district could generate and find ways to mitigate impact upon residents’ property taxes.
Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner was not completely sold on the approach and suggested an increase in resort tax might be worth considering.
“I know you’ve put a lot of time money and effort into this process so far [but] is there another way to do what you’re doing?” Skinner asked.
After brief updates from the sheriff’s offices in both counties, the meeting opened to other commentary.
The topic of incorporation spurred lively discussion.
“You guys are real unique up here. You have all the elements of a government—you’ve got a taxing ability with the resort tax board, you’ve got water and sewer, you’ve got Kitty doing promotions [with the Chamber of Commerce],” said Seifert, who represents the Big Sky area on the Gallatin County Commission. “So you’ve got kind of all the arms of a government, but you don’t have it all bundled up.”
“I don’t know what the cure to that situation is,” he continued. “You have all the elements of governance, without the governance.”
Seifert added that governance—achieved via incorporation—comes at a cost, in both financial and regulatory terms. He likened the transition process from county to city governance to that of weaning a calf. “There’s a lot of stress on both the mother and the calf,” he said.
“I think both counties would like to help you [incorporate],” Skinner said. “I’ve always had the feeling that it’s such a divisive issue.”
When asked about the complications regarding incorporating a community that straddles a county line, Seifert said it could be accomplished with “the stroke of a pen” at the state legislative level.
At the conclusion of the meeting, commissioners from both counties agreed it would be a good idea to meet again this fall given the level of public participation and the significant issues being addressed in the area.
After the meeting, Jim Hart, the commissioner who represents the Big Sky area in Madison county, listed a number of services, infrastructure and programs in Big Sky that benefit from Madison county funding: law enforcement, snow removal, Skyline bus service, weed control, defensible space for fire protection in wildland urban interface areas, planning and park districts.
On the issue of incorporation, Hart said he’s “caught between a rock and a hard spot.
“As the commissioner for this district, I don’t get over here often enough in my mind,” he said. “I’m generally comfortable with how they handle [things here], but I’m not adverse to incorporation. It brings its own challenges.”