By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – The affordable housing effort in Big Sky hit another rough patch March 27 when the Montana Senate voted 25-25 on the “Penny for Housing” bill. A simple majority was necessary to move the bill to the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 343 would have allowed resort tax communities to vote on a 1-percent increase on collections for affordable housing, raising the resort tax rate from 3 percent to up to 4 percent if approved by local voters. During the legislative process, the bill was amended to specify that collections could also be applied to infrastructure instead of community development, as an earlier version stated.
About a month before the March 14 public hearing on the bill, Big Sky Resort Area District tax board member Kevin Germain predicted that the “Penny for Housing” bill had a 50/50 chance of passing the Montana Legislature. One more “yes” vote on March 27 would have sent the bill to the House, but 50 percent was not enough to pass it and the measure is likely dead given how little time is left in the 2017 Legislative session.
Proponents of the bill adopted a frustrated and defeated tone in response to the vote, while opponents breathed a sigh of relief.
Wendy Miller, who traveled to Helena for the public hearing, said she’s confounded by opposition to the bill. Miller, who is a front desk manager at a golf club in Big Sky, said she moved to Big Sky from the Bay Area of California, where there’s a sales tax of nearly 10 percent. “For me, [up to 1 percent] is very doable,” she said.
Miller said that she’s found it more difficult to secure affordable long-term housing in Big Sky than it is in the Bay Area, a part of the country notorious for out-of-reach rent.
“I’ve contemplated moving since I got here because I’ve consistently had to worry about where I’m living,” Miller said. “It’s definitely gotten to the point where my whole season [of employment] depends on if I can even find housing.”
After two-and-a-half years in Big Sky punctuated by frequent and undesired moves at the whim of her landlords, Miller decided she’d reached the end of her rope. She was preparing to return to California when the general manager of the company she works for offered her subsidized housing.
“I’m really fortunate,” she said. “Not everybody’s that lucky.”
Opponents like Big Sky resident Alan Shaw have argued that Big Sky’s employers should develop their own housing solutions instead of counting on publicly subsidized housing. They point to Big Sky Resort as one company doing that.
“That’s something that, as a local, really upset me,” Miller said. “If you look at Big Sky Resort’s housing situation, it’s absolutely disgusting—nobody should have to live there. … [The Golden Eagle apartment building] is called ‘the dirty bird’ for a reason.”
In January, Big Sky Resort announced the addition of two new employee housing projects, one in Mountain Village and the other near Golden Eagle, that are reported to be shovel-ready for construction this summer. When complete, they’ll add 200 pillows for Big Sky Resort employees.
Shaw, who spoke in opposition to the bill at the public hearing, said in a March 29 phone interview, “I think people come to Big Sky knowing what it costs to live and work here and I don’t think it’s our obligation to support them.” He said it’s nice to have teachers and firefighters living in Big Sky, but they chose this area for a reason and if they can’t afford it, they can live in Gallatin Gateway or Belgrade. “They don’t have to live here,” he said.
Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat said his deputy is allowed to commute from the Bozeman/Belgrade area, but all of the other firefighters on staff are required to live in Big Sky so they can quickly respond to large or multiple incidents.
He added that the cost of living here presents a recruiting challenge. “The Bozeman and Central Valley [Fire Departments] have to turn away applicants; we struggle to find qualified applicants.”
Anne Marie Mistretta said the housing issue was so challenging when she was superintendent of Big Sky School District from 2005-2010 that on two occasions she put up teachers in her own home.
“People I talk to say, ‘I had no idea it was that bad,’” she said, adding that since she left the position six years ago, 75 percent of the school’s faculty has left.
“I’m devastated,” she said with a sigh in response to the bill failure.
Although emotions tend to flare at the mention of funding affordable housing in Big Sky, for some people the central issue is more about properly executed taxation than housing.
“We must be aware that increasing taxes has consequences including making our businesses less competitive,” replied Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton in a text message response to an EBS phone call. “Many of us in the community, and Montana Legislators, believe that a better approach than raising taxes is collecting tax more effectively within the existing law, and prioritizing allocation of existing collections.
“Higher taxes impact locals’ pocketbooks, too,” Middleton added.
Nearly 60 people attended the March 14 Senate Taxation Committee public hearing in Helena.
Among those who signed the visitor register, 50 people checked that they supported the bill and seven people indicated that they were opposed to it. According to BSRAD tax board members Mike Scholz and Kevin Germain, proponents sent approximately 140 letters in support of the measure to the Legislature and there were 10 or 11 letters of opposition.
As late as Saturday, March 25, it looked like the measure would narrowly make it to the House. Twenty-six senators were in favor during the second hearing, with one person absent and 23 legislators opposed.
Two legislators, including Nels Swandal of Gardiner, one of the resort communities that would have been directly impacted by the bill, changed their vote to one of opposition two days later for the third—and most important—reading of the bill.
“I found it strange,” Scholz said in response to Swandal’s flipped vote. “It was a bill that could really help his own community.” Germain points out that not just Big Sky is impacted by the bill’s failure; the nine other resort communities in the state are also affected. He said he’d seen strong support for the measure from each of those nine communities.
Proponents of SB 343 stressed that it would not have automatically resulted in a 1-percent increase; instead it would have allowed residents to vote for or against it.
“I’m disappointed for everybody in Big Sky that once again we can’t vote on something,” Mistretta said. “But I’m particularly disappointed for the people who need affordable housing that we can’t seem to come to grips with this as a community.”
Megan McLean, a Big Sky resident who’s spent two seasons working in member services at a local club, said attending meetings in Big Sky about affordable housing made her realize how much undeveloped potential there is in this community. “It has the potential to be a really cool, thriving community, but without affordable housing there’s no way that they can keep people here.”
“Long-time Big Sky residents are reluctant to make friends or establish long-term relationships because they don’t know how long people will be here,” McLean continued. “That’s what makes a strong community, and that’s what Big Sky needs.”
McLean has made the decision to move at the end of the ski season because she can no longer afford to put nearly half of her income into housing. She’s thinking about moving to Portland, Oregon, “somewhere I know I could see myself having a future,” she said.