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Resort tax board approves 1% water, sewer application

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Launches novel chapter for Big Sky Resort Area Tax District

By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – On Jan. 7, the Big Sky Resort Area District open board meeting had an air of significance, as community business members and organization representatives took their seats in The Wilson Hotel’s Sapphire conference room.

For the most part, save ordinance tweaks and evolving compliance measures, the resort tax—the 3 percent collection levied on luxuries and goods and services in Big Sky since 1992 when the general electorate of Big Sky voted to introduce the tax to meet the growing influx and financial subsequent strains of tourists—has remained consistent, relatively unchanging.

It’s only fitting that a mere week after ushering in a new decade, nearly 30 years following that critical financing decision, the BSRAD board usher in a new chapter of resort tax, one in which an additional 1 percent tax be levied in conjunction and for the express purpose of backing voter-approved infrastructural projects.

The impetus behind the approval is the direct result of years of BSRAD conversation and presence in Helena, beginning in 2017 and coming to a close in May 2019 with the passing of Senate Bill 241, which allowed for the incremental percentage in the state’s 10 resort tax communities.

SB 241 laid the foundation for several organizations in Big Sky to approach the BSRAD with the community’s first-ever applications for such projects, most notably the Big Sky Water and Sewer District’s request for funding for two separate projects.

The first would address future shortcomings of the existing Water Resource Recovery Facility, upping average day-rated treatment capacity from 600,000 gallons to 910,000 gallons.

The project is also conditioned by the BSWSD’s commitment to facilitate 500 additional Single Family Equivalents in a bid to address ongoing workforce housing shortages plaguing roadways and business owners across Big Sky.

The second application highlights the community’s growth in a nutshell: construct a Lift Station near the intersection of Highway 191 and Lone Mountain Trail in order to convey wastewater from the canyon to the existing facility adjacent to Big Sky Community Park, a tonic to growing water sewer needs in Gallatin Canyon as the community increasingly turns toward the area for community facilities and housing.

Bundled into the second application is also a proposed second main to dispose of treated effluent in ground water infiltration galleries. Ultimately, the combination seeks to “improve water quality, address capacity issues due to population growth and minimize environmental impacts, most notably on the Gallatin River,” according to a BSRAD press release.

The combined requests reach a total of $35 million, $27 and $12 million, respectively—60 percent of both projects’ total needs, but no trivial sum.

This percentage was agreed upon by the joint committee because approximately 60 percent of the resort tax revenue is generated within the boundaries of the BSWSD, and approximately 60 percent of the registered voters of the BSRAD reside within the boundaries of the BSWSD.

Yet, considering collections grew by 16.2 percent over last three years, 13.6 percent over the last five years and 13 percent over the last 10 years—at 5 percent projected growth, the $35 million sum will be reached in around 11 years, according to BSRAD District Manager Daniel Bierschwale.

“We are very happy with the outcome [application approval],” said BSWSD General Manager Ron Edwards.

“It’s really important to show the resort tax working with the Big Sky Water and Sewer [District] on these communitywide needs,” said Kevin Germain, BSRAD chairperson.

“These are huge win-wins I see across the community,” he added. “If you didn’t see the resort tax helping to pay for this, it would 100 percent be paid for by the ratepayers … This is just another example of trying to take the burden off our property tax payers and our locals and shifting that burden to the tourists on all these projects.”

Another notable achievement of the BSRAD from the past calendar year, commissioning consulting firm Logan Simpson to survey the community, which resulted in the “Our Big Sky: Vision and Strategy Plan,” actually listed “Improve and Maintain Infrastructure, Protect Wildlife Habitat and Natural Resources, Promote the Development of Affordable Housing” as high-ranking community priorities.

“I looked back to ‘Our Big Sky,’ where our community provided their priorities, and the combination of these two projects hit at least five of the top 18 priorities,” said Ciara Wolfe, the board’s newest member and CEO of the Big Sky Community Organization.

While the BSRAD has approved the applications, the proposed increase must first pass a community ballot in May.

Deliberation over tentative proxy voting also took up a notable portion of the open board meeting. Ultimately, members of the board decided to revisit the discussion at a later date.

The next open board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 4.

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