Increase power of resort tax board, new county, town council

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – At an April 4 forum hosted by the chamber of commerce at Big Sky Resort, the Montana State University Local Government Center presented different routes Big Sky could take to establish a more organized and effective governing body-outside of incorporation.

The purpose of this governing body, as expressed by the chamber, would be to facilitate communication and coordination across the many boards, committees, nonprofits and organizations now tackling interrelated issues independently, and create a cohesive voice for Big Sky that would more likely be heard by lawmakers.

When Dan Clark, director of the MSU Local Government Center, said incorporation was being left off the table, due to what he understood as a lack of community support, it caused a stir in the audience.

Big Sky Resort Area District tax board candidate and resident Steve Johnson said that depended on whom you talk to, and “the decision to incorporate is not up to the chamber.”

Chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss stood up to clarify that the purpose of the center’s study was to present options other than incorporation, and to determine how Big Sky can better govern itself in the present.

Big Sky is “governed” by Madison and Gallatin counties, and the fact that the area straddles two counties adds to the complexity of easing the strain on Big Sky’s infrastructure due to its growth.

“You’re not broken,” Clark said. “You’re functioning quite well, actually … [but] a governing structure may help with the sustainability of that and give it a sense of legitimacy.” He added that the larger Big Sky gets, the more necessary it becomes to have something akin to a municipal government.

“You can create another board to talk about it and make recommendations, but [you] can’t do anything about it, because [you] don’t have that power,” Clark said.

The recommended governing options included expanding the function and authority of the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board to take more of a leadership role in the community. Clark said he favored this solution because having a voter-elected board lends it legitimacy at the legislative level; it’s the entity that holds the community purse strings; and that it’s possible to approach the state legislature about adding governing powers to its role.

But Carol Collins, who was on the first resort tax board in 1992, and Johnson, potentially a future resort tax board member, both commented that resort tax has always been a passive process of collection and distribution, and the board was not created to be otherwise.

“But could it be more active?” Clark asked. “Going to the legislature we find ourselves in between the county and municipality-is it possible we could give a little more power to resort tax to fill that gap?”

Other ideas presented included creating a community council, which would be fairly easy to establish as an official subdivision of county government and would be able to provide input for decisions at all levels of government, as well as request funding from the county.

Another possibility is creating a multijurisdictional district-a unit of government that could coordinate all other districts, facilitate community planning and levy taxes to support its activities.

The last few options-creating a nonprofit dedicated to cross-community coordination; Big Sky becoming its own county, or the community petitioning to change its government-all had inherently challenging aspects from the center’s perspective.

Nonprofits are nimble but don’t have authority to make decisions; and their legitimacy may be questioned because they’re not comprised of elected officials.

While Clark said that creating a new county is “a cool idea,” the political hurdles may be insurmountable.

“Removing Big Sky may decrease the tax base of Madison and Gallatin counties,” Clark said. “Both counties would have to vote to release you-shall we stop there?” he laughed, looking at Gallatin County commissioners Don Seifert and Steve White who were among the meeting’s attendees.

In addition to that unlikelihood, there would be the task of creating an entirely new governmental system, which would be challenging administratively, financially and legally both for this option and creating a charter form of government.

Big Sky Transportation District Manager David Kack proposed one more idea that was not in Clark’s recommendations, causing an eruption of laughter in the conference room.

“How easy would it be move the county line so that Big Sky is in one county?”

“Thanks for handing me that grenade,” Clark said, looking at the county commissioners once more, adding that maybe he’d add that possibility to his final report.

“We’ve chewed on this and chewed on this and chewed on this and still haven’t gotten into the game,” Johnson said. “Let’s just get on with it, it’s time.”

The MSU Local Government Center will present their proposed solutions Tuesday, May 15, from 6-8 p.m. at the Big Sky Water and Sewer building.

“Eggs and Issues” is a monthly Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum that tackles a specific topic of interest to the Big Sky community. Visit bigskychamber.com for more information.