Project updates and fallout from ‘Penny for Housing’ failure also discussed

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – In the wake of the failed “Penny for Housing” legislative effort, approximately a dozen members of the Big Sky community sat in on the public comment portion of the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board meeting April 5.

The meeting began with representatives speaking on behalf of the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association, the chamber of commerce and the Arts Council of Big Sky, largely in response to comments made by opponents of Senate Bill 343 at the March 14 public hearing in Helena.

BSSHA president Ryan Blechta said he was commenting about statements made by Big Sky resident Alan Shaw that questioned the legality of resort tax funding of his organization.

“This is the first time anyone has questioned the right of resort tax to provide funding,” Blechta said. “We find it shocking that [Shaw] questioned the funding of organizations like the Arts Council and Big Sky Ski Education Foundation.” He added that unlike Bozeman, Big Sky has no other means to fund such organizations.

After the board assured Blechta that all resort tax appropriations are fully vetted by legal counsel, David O’Connor, chair of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce board of directors, stood up to correct a “mischaracterization of history” in regards to insinuations made by opponents of SB 343 that moves to present the bill were done discreetly and without community support.

“To intimate that this was done quickly in a dark room is simply not true,” said O’Connor, adding that it’s a matter of “public record” that affordable housing has been considered a critical issue in the community since 1992. “I want to point out to anybody who is concerned about these processes, that they have been very public and apologize to you for any allegation that has been made otherwise.”

Following the public comment session, Big Sky Community Organization Executive Director Ciara Wolfe provided an update on BSCO projects that have been appropriated resort tax funds.

Wolfe reported that the addition of a traffic light at Highway 64 and Ousel Falls Road was on track for a May 1 installation. Weather permitting, the light is anticipated to be fully functional by early June before the onset of the busy summer season. The project was co-funded by resort tax and local developers.

Wolfe also shared that a grant to fund the remaining construction costs of the BSCO pedestrian tunnel and trail project, beyond the $213,000 appropriated by the resort tax board, had been submitted to the state of Montana. Wolfe was optimistic about the state’s fall decision—if the $900,000 grant is awarded, it would reduce the resort tax funding for the project to $140,000, and BSCO would be shooting for a summer 2018 construction date.

David Kack, coordinator of the Big Sky Transportation District, said Skyline bus service reported a record-breaking year and saw a 32 percent increase in rides between Bozeman and Big Sky. He also said Skyline is looking to add another roundtrip to the local Link Express service, as they anticipate an increased employee demand for the service.

The resort tax board then announced their available funds estimation, reporting that of the $8.5 million in their combined bank accounts, $2.6 million was appropriated for 2016 projects, leaving $5.85 million currently available for 2017 appropriations, a figure that includes the sinking fund of $811,439. If the forecasted amount of an additional $1.3 million in collections before June appropriations is accurate, board member Jamey Kabisch said 2016-2017 was on track to be another record-breaking fiscal year.

The board closed the meeting with old business, the first item being a debriefing on the life cycle of the defeated “Penny for Housing” bill.

Despite it failing in the third, and most important, public hearing on its way to the House, both BSRAD tax board members Kevin Germain and Mike Scholz stressed the overwhelming support from the community and beyond, as evidenced by the 50 supporters who showed up at the Senate Taxation Committee hearing, which was the only opportunity for public comment, and a bound book of 140 letters in support.

Germain said some heavy lobbying must have been at play between Saturday, March 25, when the bill looked like it would pass to the House and Monday, March 27, when two senators changed their vote to oppose the bill, stalling it in a 25-25 tie.

Germain and Scholz cited a current political environment in the state that’s unfriendly to taxation of any kind, and the waters getting muddied by the suggestion that incorporation would solve Big Sky’s affordable housing issue, as reasons the bill failed.

But in reference to the beginning of the meeting, it was the successful spread of misinformation that hurt SB 343 the most, according to Scholz.

This included suggestions that the bill initiative was started by the resort tax board on their own volition, accusing the resort tax board of frivolous, or worse, unauthorized spending; and that there’s no real need for affordable housing in Big Sky.

Also being widely circulated and, according to Scholz, echoed on the Senate floor was that Big Sky’s private clubs— the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin—only began collecting resort tax in 2016.

Scholz said those contributions have been coming in for 13 years, and mentioned that Big Sky’s private clubs collectively paid $825,000 last year, making them the second largest tax collector.

Scholz also read from two 1992 letters—from Stephen Kircher, now president of Boyne Resorts eastern operations, and Big Sky Resort’s current general manager Taylor Middleton—to demonstrate the resort’s longstanding opposition to resort tax.

“They obviously weren’t for 3 percent,” Scholz said. “And certainly not for the 1 percent.”

“We lost; I’m sure they’re proud they won, but I’m not so sure our community is proud they won,” Scholz added. “We weren’t there to beat Boyne; we were there to win for the community. We’re going to keep at it.”