By Bella Butler COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENT EDITOR
BIG SKY – Following results from an area election, the Big Sky Resort Area District board welcomed a new member and appointed board members to officer positions at their May 6 meeting.
Grace Young, 19-year Big Sky resident, replaced former board member Buz Davis, who did not run for reelection. Young was joined in her victory by incumbents Kevin Germain and Ciara Wolfe. During the meeting, the new board voted to reappoint Kevin Germain as board chair, appointed Sarah Blechta as vice chair and Steve Johnson as both secretary and treasurer. Johnson was also appointed to all subcommittees that formerly included Davis.
The board then revisited the scenario planning presentation delivered by a subcommittee the week prior. The subcommittee, comprised of former board member Davis, and Blechta, along with BSRAD Executive Director Daniel Bierschwale and Operations Manager Jenny Muscat, was established to analyze a number of potential COVID-19 impact scenarios and present possible approaches to the board.
The subcommittee consulted with more than 20 sources, including interviews they conducted with various community and regional actors. From these consultations, they drew out a number of themes, including assumed impacts for two to three years, a need for widespread testing, and utilizing travel and tourism data to guide decisions, among others.
Among the propositions presented by Bierschwale, on behalf of the subcommittee, at the April 29 meeting was a biannual allocation cycle, which the board unanimously voted to implement for the next two fiscal years at the May 6 meeting.
This restructuring will add a fall application period to that which already exists in the spring and allocate funds collected within a six month, rather than 12-month period. The aim with this adjustment is to react more regularly to the pandemic and its ripple effects, which have proven to be extremely fluid. This change also ensures that a guaranteed sum of money will be available for allocation in the fall.
After witnessing greater than previously assumed March collections, modest predictions for April and May 2020 collections—and with considerations for the operating budget and bond commitments—collections currently scheduled to be distributed for FY21, which begins July 1, 2020 and ends June 30, 2021, are forecasted to total $6.3 million, roughly 2 million less than the previous year.
Another recommendation brought forth by the scenario planning subcommittee was to set aside a portion of collections as a reserve. “All of that money is extremely important to the [recipients of resort tax funds], but that money is also what’s going to potentially help us get through in [Fiscal Year 22] in the event that the worst case scenario were to happen—which would be Fiscal Year 21, the summer and winter season, having no collection,” Bierschwale said at the April 29 meeting.
The subcommittee’s reserve recommendation was paired with the proposed concept of a crisis management policy that would provide guidance as to when and how to use the reserve funds in case of an emergency. The board discussed the reserve fund further at the May 6 meeting but did not take any action in its regard.
Also proposed was the continuance of the Big Sky Relief fund, which has provided critical emergency funds for the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center as well as other community institutions and organizations like the Big Sky School District and the Big Sky Community Food Bank. The six-month resort tax appropriation cycle will give biannual opportunities to reevaluate Big Sky Relief as well as the BSRAD operations budget.
At both meetings, Wolfe, who is also CEO of the Big Sky Community Organization, expressed concern with regard to the reserve fund, which was proposed to begin with $2 million and build by $500,000 for the next two fiscal years. “I just think the board needs to be realistic also about balancing what feels safe and financially secure and worst-case scenarios with the heart of the people,” she said at the April 29 meeting. “Is it worth being safe and secure to not have anything available and people to move out of town?”
Bierschwale said that the amount of the reserve fund, if adopted, can be negotiated at a later meeting with interest in “making the most fiscally responsible decision.”
“We have a responsibility to make sure we have public safety and emergency services … and make sure those continue so we can support the health and safety of our community,” former BSRAD board member Davis said. “Are we willing—are you willing—to bet the cash we have now, to bet against that this thing is going to reemerge?” Davis warned the board to be conservative.
Other board members cited the Montana Department of Commerce’s recent “Montana is worth the wait” campaign as well as the potential for a fall reemergence of COVID-19 as justification for making conservative choices now.
“This pandemic has taught us all that anything can come out of left field, and I do think it’s our fiduciary responsibility to this community to generate a nice reserve for unanticipated issues such as what we’re facing,” Germain said.
The board also took action at the May 6 meeting to approve the reclassification of funds allocated to BSCO for FY20, which were allocated for community center construction use and will still be used for that purpose.