By Emily Stifler Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

HELENA – Start thinking big, Big Sky.

Gov. Steve Bullock on April 19 signed a bill that gives the Big Sky Resort Tax Area District bonding authority. Effective immediately, Senate Bill 209 will allow the Resort Tax Board to fund large, long-term projects.

“It’s something we need to have in the financial toolbox when we manage our appropriations,” said resort tax board member Mike Scholz.

A number of Big Sky residents sent letters to the legislature in support of the bill, and Chamber of Commerce Director and President Kitty Clemens and David O’Connor testified in Helena, along with Scholz and RTB President Les Loble.

While Scholz said the RTB does not anticipate any specific use for bonding at this time, some of the ideas discussed have been a recreational center/concert venue and a more advanced health care facility.

The new law applies to both Montana Resort Area Districts, Big Sky and St. Regis, which are unincorporated areas with a population less than 2,500 where the community’s economy is based on tourism. It could in the future benefit Craig and Cooke City/Silvergate, both of which are Resort Areas governed by their county commissioners. All four have a 3 percent resort tax.

A majority vote of the RTB and voter approval would be required to pass a bond in excess of $500,000, and a 4 out of 5 majority board vote with no voter approval for bonds less than that amount. The amount pledged annually to repay bonds for such a project could not exceed 25 percent of the average of the previous five years’ resort tax collections.

“It’s actually pretty conservative,” said the bill’s sponsor, Ron Arthun, R-Wilsall, who represents the Cooke City/Silvergate Resort Area and Gardiner, which is considering becoming a Resort Area.

Next, the RTB has to create an ordinance or add on to the existing administrative ordinance, said RTB attorney Mona Jamison, who lobbied during the session for the bill.

“The board just has to think of a few procedures they want to set in place before they decide to move forward with a bond issue,” she said, noting this will govern the timetable and necessary steps for a bond applicant to take, including guidelines for public education and input, and whether the bonding would happen alongside the annual application process.

“Where and when we use it, who knows,” Scholz said. “We at least will have the tool available shortly.”

Montana also has four Resort Area Communities – Red Lodge, West Yellowstone, Virginia City and Whitefish, which are incorporated towns with a population less than 5,500 and have independent bonding authority.