Estimated 36% of applications won’t receive appropriations this year

By Taylor Anderson, ExploreBigSky.com Assistant Editor

BIG SKY–Big Sky nonprofits asked for $3.5 million from this year’s resort tax appropriations. About $1.25 million won’t be funded, if conservative resort tax estimates are correct.

So far this year, about $2.5 million has been collected from the 3 percent resort tax in the Big Sky Resort Area District. That amount, collected between July 2011 and March of this year, is higher than that span last year, but will likely flounder this spring without the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that was held last spring in Big Sky.

Another $250,000 will go to the Big Sky Water and Sewer district for what will be the last in a 17-year, $7.5 million bond for the infrastructure. That leaves projected appropriations for this year at less than $2 million.

The board appropriated all but about $180,000 last year, but after purchasing new office space in the Town Center, that won’t be available appropriated.

Representatives from 21 nonprofits attended a four-hour question and answer session to face questions from the tax board about why the groups should receive a share of tax appropriations in what is sure to be a contentious meeting June 13.

New board member Jamey Kabisch—former president of Big Sky’s First Security bank—asked questions that trended toward economics and percentages.

“Is [Biggest Skiing In America marketing campaign] looking at problems of bringing more people to town?” Kabisch asked of the group requesting more than any other, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

“If we have the same infrastructure, and have 600,000 skier visits, the quality of service for these is going to go down,” Kabisch said, referring to the BSIA goal of reaching 500,000 skier visits by next season.

The chamber has requested $640,000, plus $49,273 in rollover requests it didn’t spend from last year’s appropriations. The group prioritized its application into three groups:

1. BSIA winter marketing campaign, the second phase of branding efforts for the town, and the chamber’s publications.
2. Wayfinding signs throughout town, eight roadway lights at the intersection of Highway 191 and Lone Mountain Trail, and the design of a 95-foot by 35-foot entry monument at the intersection.
3. Funding for two new staff members, and leasing the building owned by SP Corner Property at that same intersection to move the chamber’s visitor information center so it would have better exposure to passers-by on 191.

A new project this year, the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, a multi-purpose arts facility in Ophir School’s old gym, has asked for $500,000 to finish the center by year’s end. That’s the largest single request this year, made by Friends of Big Sky Education.

In its application, Friends of Big Sky Education said “governments which support the arts on average see a return on investment of more than $7 for every $1 that the government appropriates. When asked by Ginna Hermann where that number came from, Loren Bough said it would “show a broad economic impact” and a multiplier effect, sparing details.

Members of the public, including four Ophir students, lined up in support of the WMPAC during the public comment section of the meeting.

For his part in representing the fire department’s $436,863 request, Big Sky Fire Chief Bill Farhat told the board that the department’s funding is dire.

Kabisch, noting the department budget, pointed out the lack of financial reserves, to which Farhat said, “I’d say none. At this point right now, if you say you can’t support it, then we’re in trouble.”

But support for the funding the department seemed high, and historically its applications have been funded almost in their entirety.

The fire department saw a 7 percent increase in emergency incident volume last year. If the same trend occurs this year, it would have a difficult time meeting the increase. It also receives $931,000 from the two counties it serves: $479,000 from Gallatin and $452,000 from Madison.

The group that faced perhaps the most scrutiny from the tax board was Morningstar Learning Center. The 501c3 nonprofit preschool and day care in 2008 received a $300,000 grant from the tax board for constructing a new building in town. It was supposed to match that fund with $200,000.

When the economy tanked, the building wasn’t built. After the building hit a stall, donations stopped coming in, and groups wanted their money back. Morningstar has been working to repair its image in the eyes of the public and the tax board ever since.

Board chair Les Loble asked about the missing $200,000 while questioning Morningstar board member Joe Miller, indicating it’s still an issue Morningstar is figuring out.

The group last year requested $60,000 it requested to help lower tuition costs for parents. It received none of it, showing that year’s board view that not enough of the community benefited from the center. Capacity at the day care is 42 children, and the number of attendees fluctuates throughout the week. Parents pay about $5 an hour for their children to use the center.

Morningstar this year has asked for $198,778.12. Of that, $170,000 would pay remaining principal on the mortgage of a new building purchased late last year, and $23,778 would pay the roughly $2,000 monthly mortgage payments for a year.

After that, Miller said, the group would no longer be indebted for its new building, and could thus lower tuition.

BSRAD attorney Mona Jamison questioned funding what she says borders private education and may not have any right to appropriations under the Montana Constitution.

“The underlying issue here is whether or not this is really a public institution,” she said. “I’m not the Supreme Court. Out of all the applications, it was the one that was highly questionable from a legal standpoint.”

Miller said the Morningstar board has followed up with Jamison’s concerns and believes it has a strong argument that it’s a much-needed resource for young local parents and is not private.

If funded, Miller said the center could lower its prices for each student by about $50 a month.

The 2-year-old Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association has asked for $26,500 to fund 75 percent of its operations. The nonprofit group, which is waiting on the IRS for 501c3 approval, would pay a contractor to create and maintain the ice and plow snow, purchase wiring for the heating hut, buy mandatory insurance, fix the old and beaten boards for use in another season, and install two more lights for night skating.

The BSSHA received letters of support from more than 40 individuals and businesses in advance of the question and answer meeting.

Tax appropriations are set for June 13 in the Big Sky Chapel. Follow the Big Sky Weekly for updates leading up to the meeting. To see the whole list of applications, go to explorebigsky.com/taxboard.