By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – On April 6, various Big Sky organizations and boards made a case for county funding for projects they’ve been working on, but commissioners made it known that budget demands—at least in Gallatin County—have increased.
Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert said that although property tax collections have been growing, the Montana Legislature has been trying to pass off more responsibilities to county governments to accommodate a decline in state-collected income taxes.
“There’s always a move to take some of the duties that the state handles and move them to county responsibilities,” said Seifert, who points to a slowdown in the oil and gas industry as one contributor to the state’s budget shortfall. “Then the state Legislature can say, ‘We didn’t raise taxes.’ But the reality is they passed that responsibility on to us and we end up taxing more.”
Approximately 80 people attended the April 6 meeting, which was held at Big Sky Resort’s Summit Hotel. Representatives were present from most of the key players in Big Sky, including the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board, the chamber of commerce, the water and sewer district, Big Sky Community Organization and the Big Sky Transportation District.
Ennion Williams, chair of the Big Sky Transportation District board of directors, said Skyline has seen a “definite increase” in the amount of employees living in Bozeman and using the bus to commute to Big Sky, which straddles Gallatin and Madison counties. In an attempt to quantify the wages earned in Big Sky and spent in Gallatin Valley, he conducted a survey of riders and employers.
Williams said 65 percent of surveyed Skyline users rode the bus for work. He estimates a total of $4 million in wages are earned at Moonlight Basin, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, Big Sky Resort and the Yellowstone Club, and then spent in Gallatin Valley north of Big Sky.
“This is real money being earned here,” Williams said. “Gallatin County funding [of] the Big Sky Transportation District is essential for us to continue the growth that we see here in Big Sky.”
Big Sky Transportation District coordinator David Kack said Skyline is on track for another record-setting year. To date, Skyline’s local service ridership is up 9 percent and the Link Express between Bozeman to Big Sky is up 32 percent. Approximately 8,000 more rides have been given on the Link Express this year than last. “We know that we need to increase our level of service … from Big Sky to Bozeman and within Big Sky.”
Big Sky resident Emory Sanders said his house’s proximity to a bus stop was a key factor when he and his wife decided to purchase their home. He said both he and his wife, who cannot drive due to a vision problem, ride the bus regularly. “I urge the commissioners to consider the increase in transportation [funding],” Sanders said.
Ciara Wolfe, executive director of Big Sky Community Organization, spoke about findings from a survey that will inform a parks master plan. Approximately 90 percent of respondents reported using Big Sky’s trails on a monthly basis and many would like to see improvement to trailheads and public restrooms, as well as the development of winter walkways. She said other items on the community wish list include an expansion of the trail system, increased river access and a recreation center.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said a Montana Highway Patrol trooper is now stationed in Big Sky. He said the arrangement would increase traffic enforcement and decrease wait times for accident investigations. “Not only is that great for you, but that’s great for us,” said Gootkin, adding that an accident investigation can tie up a deputy responding from Bozeman, West Yellowstone or Three Forks for hours.
Funding for law enforcement and coroner services in Big Sky is shared between three entities. The Big Sky Resort Area District tax board, Gallatin County and Madison County each fund two deputies.
Commissioners are looking to late July for their next joint meeting in Big Sky, when BSCO will have more clarity about the future of transportation and parks projects they’re spearheading.