By Bay Stephens EBS LOCAL EDITOR
BIG SKY – The longtime assistant manager of the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board, Whitney Brunner, left her position on June 4, and Daniel Bierschwale, the board’s first executive, has joined the organization in the district manager position. Bierschwale aims to shepherd in a new era of partnership between the resort tax board and the Big Sky community.
Since Brunner joined resort tax eight years ago, she has seen collections increase from $1 million to this year’s collection of $8 million. For the first 6.5 years of her tenure, Brunner was the one-woman show of resort tax’s staff, before she led the charge on hiring more staff.
Brunner also spearheaded the first Resort Tax Summit in 2016 that brought representatives from various resort tax communities across the state together to problem solve over shared challenges.
She will join environmental and municipal consulting firm Logan Simpson, which is currently carrying out the Our Big Sky Community Strategic Visioning Strategy. Her new position as project manager for Logan Simpson, which was also awarded the Gallatin County plan and is currently working on Bozeman’s community plan, will draw upon her training in marketing and the experience in local governance she’s gained from working with BSRAD.
“[It’s been] an honor to be able to work with so many people who work so hard for our community,” Brunner said. “… I think I’m lucky because I’ve been able to walk that line of being the tax collector, but also being a good neighbor but also being a respected local. I’ve enjoyed the role.”
She also sees the position as a front row seat to how planning is taking place in mountain communities Big Sky emulates, which she thinks could come back to benefit Big Sky, where she will continue to be a resident as she works remotely.
During her tenure, Brunner said the resort tax board’s role in Big Sky has changed very little, remaining a money managing entity and adding tools to the toolbox of what resort tax can do, instead of taking on more of a leadership role. She added that the district is in a better place than it’s ever been.
The board’s decision to create its first executive-level position, which Bierschwale now fills, marks a milestone for BSRAD.
Bierschwale grew up a “social mutt,” he says, having lived all over the country throughout his childhood as a pastor’s son.
He fell in love with Yellowstone National Park and the region when he worked out here during his college years. Equipped with a M.A. in Organizational Management from Concordia University, St. Paul, he came to Gardiner in 2007 and joined the Yellowstone Association, which later merged with the Yellowstone Park Foundation to form Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner.
Bierschwale worked in Yellowstone Forever’s gateway partnerships to raise funds for projects in the park and also played an integral role in Gardiner becoming an unincorporated resort tax district, like Big Sky.
“There are a lot of similarities, surprisingly between both of these communities,” he said. “It’s just in Big Sky there’s a few more zeroes after the issues.”
He expects the coming year to be a big one for resort tax collections and looks forward to the results of the Community Visioning Strategy in November, which will help generate a business plan for BSRAD going forward.
Some of Bierschwale’s goals include laying a foundation for resort tax to be able to scale with community growth; revising and updating BSRAD’s ordinance this summer to provide more clarity for businesses that collect resort tax; building an internal strategic plan by January of 2020 with the findings of Logan Simpson’s strategic visioning process; allowing the application process to be done online; and preparing for next year when three board seats open up.
“Big Sky is changing around us whether we want it to or not,” he said, adding that resort tax will shift from a one-year approach to planning a more proactive 3-5-year approach.
“We’ve hit a tipping point where long-term planning and community engagement need to occur in order for the resort tax board to be able to make decisions that are difficult.”
In the meantime, you might see Bierschwale at the plethora of local board meetings as he works to gain a better understanding of how Big Sky operates.