6 – 9 p.m. at Buck’s T-4

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – This is your chance to help plan the future of Big Sky.

On Feb. 11, the Resort Tax Board will hold the second of two town hall meetings, this one focused on community input and needs.

The board will present a compilation of approximately 19 organizational surveys from resort tax applicants, and also hear a brief presentation from each applicant on upcoming needs and proposed projects.

The idea is to get a sense of what requests are coming up in the next three to five years, and what those implications might mean for the community and the RTB. Already, the surveys have helped the board understand future funding requirements, allocation breakdown, and its own cash flow requirements.

In its monthly meeting on Feb. 6, the board discussed the fact that several applicants had areas of interest that overlapped those of other applicants.

“One of the purposes [of the town hall meeting] is to get the community to be thinking outside the box,” said RTB chairman Les Loble. “You’re hearing about things in your jurisdiction, so to speak, that others are doing, and we hope that you will be thinking about collaborating.”

Buz Davis, a consultant for the board, suggested “There needs to be a ‘visioning process’, or some process that brings [Big Sky] organizations together for planning.”

“What you’re really doing here,” Davis told the board, “is uncovering for the community the fact that they’ve all got little pieces of this, but they haven’t begun to figure out how those pieces fit together on where they want to be in five years.”

One upcoming challenge, Davis noted, is the more than $5 million in projected requests for 2015 – compared to the $3 million the board has historically received.

At the town hall meeting on Feb. 11, the audience will have a chance to get up and speak in an open forum; and to ask questions of the applicants and the board members. The board also plans to engage the community in a conversation about values.

“What makes us a community and a resort?” asked board member Mike Scholz at the Feb. 6 meeting, referring to those bigger picture ideas. “We need to say, ‘What are we missing?’ A hospital? Education? Affordable housing? They’re big things, and they usually don’t come up because they are so big. But if we’re going to be that world class community, we’ve got to say, ‘How do you cover those big things?’”

In the first town hall meeting on Jan. 14, the RTB presented its recent strategic planning process, its new operational guidelines, as well as two ways it might fund such large projects – a sinking fund and bonding.

To fund these long term, more expensive projects, the board is currently working to get legislative approval for it to have bonding authority, something Resort Tax Communities like West Yellowstone have.

A bill is currently before the 2013 state legislature that would grant the board this authority. The Montana State Senate Taxation Committee heard the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Ron Arthun, R-Wilsall, on Feb. 5. It now appears the bill will have some amendments, one of which states that to issue a bond, the resort tax board must first gain approval from the district’s voters.

After being redrafted, the bill will go before the committee again, then if approved, on to the Senate floor. This may happen as soon as Friday Feb. 18, Loble said.

Scholz, Loble, and Resort Tax attorney and lobbyist Mona Jamison presented at the hearing, as did Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kitty Clemens and President David O’Connor, and a Carbon County Commissioner, who spoke on behalf of Red Lodge Ski Area, which is also requesting bonding authority.

If the bill passes, the amount pledged annually to repay bonds cannot exceed 25 percent of the average of the previous five years’ collections.

“What we’re trying to do is limit the amount of resort tax funds that can be committed to repayment,” Loble said after the hearing.

Hypothetically, he explained, if the average collection for the last five years was $2.5 million, 25 percent of that is $625,000. That means no more than $625,000 could be committed to repaying the bonds. If you assume the interest rate will be 4 percent, then the total bonds that could be raised will be $6.9 million. $625,000 annually would pay that off in 15 years.

From the applicants’ point of view, the pot of money would be almost the same as it’s been – except that this year there’s more, with the Water and Sewer District loan ($500,000 annually) paid in full.

“I don’t think you could do big things without it,” Scholz told the Weekly on Feb. 6. “We’re looking for game changers [for the community], but also, you don’t know when you’re going to have something happen,” he said, referring to an emergency.

“There’s something that we probably want, but if we always do it out of our annual [allocations], we would have to sacrifice many of the other projects that are so important to our community. It’s a cash flow management tool.”