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Joint county commission shares state of the union on Big Sky issues, solutions

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Gallatin and Madison county commissioners sit at a table with the Big Sky Resort Area District Board at the April 6 joint county commission meeting. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR

BIG SKY – If there was a theme to the April 6 joint county commission meeting, it would be growth and collaboration. The two buzz words umbrella the topics of discussion shared with a packed community audience at the biannual event. 

Gallatin and Madison county commissioners shared a literal decision-making table at the Wilson Hotel with trustees from the Big Sky Resort Area District following the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues event. The joint commission of 10 discussed before an estimated virtual and live audience of more than 90, issues mostly associated with growth, and solutions largely attributed to collaboration, that are both prevailing in nature and fresh with updates. 

An epitome of the challenge of growth and the power of collaboration, Big Sky Resort Area District Board trustee Kevin Germain shared that expansive roadwork on Montana Highway 64 will commence this summer after the resort tax district, the Montana Department of Transportation and both Madison and Gallatin counties pitched in additional funds to close the more-than $3 million gap between available grant funding and the current lowest construction bid.

In other transportation news, Big Sky Transportation District Coordinator David Kack provided an update on public transportation. Ridership is on the rise, Kack said, reporting a 13 percent increase this March compared to March last year. 

Addressing child care cost and availability, Executive Director of Childcare Connections Tori Sproles shed light on the rising issue in both Madison and Gallatin counties. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines affordable child care as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income, Sproles reported that typical families in Gallatin and Madison counties spend 25-35 percent of their annual income on child care respectively. 

Sproles ended her presentation on a hopeful note, providing news of potential grant funding and local child care task forces that are seeking to address the community hurdle. 

Ron Edwards provided updates on the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, which is currently in the construction phase of more-than $45 million wastewater treatment facility upgrade to meet rising service demand in Big Sky. Mace Mangold spoke on behalf of the Gallatin Canyon County Water and Sewer District, which after forming officially in December of 2020, is currently in the process of outreach and fundraising.

Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, presents on the district’s new facility. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

A topic discussed at length by the joint county commission, emergency egress was presented as an issue by a few speakers. Madison County Commissioner John Heckler provided updates on work the county is doing to improve the 3-mile county section of Jack Creek Road that connects Big Sky with the Madison Valley. 

Still in the early stages of developing an emergency plan, Heckler said what Madison County can do is provide an estimate on if the road could handle a mass exodus of residents out of Big Sky. 

“I think the answer is no right now,” he said. 

The road, one of only two ways out of Big Sky, has several bends Heckler referred to as “tight spots” that the county has already begun construction on to make more passable. 

Big Sky Fire Chief Greg Megaard added to the safety discussion. Even though it’s still winter, he said, the fire department is preparing for wildland fire season. This summer will be the first full season the Pano AI camera on top of Lone Mountain is in use. The smoke-detecting camera uses a 360-degree view to alert authorities of potential fires. Megaard said a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service could result in additional cameras being placed around the area to create a broader view. 

Kristin Gardner, chief science and executive officer with the Gallatin River Task Force, shared updates on the water supply of Big Sky, an increasingly pressing concern as area growth and drought persist.

Gardner detailed several ongoing and forthcoming studies intended to understand Big Sky’s available water supply. The task force hopes to coordinate a public meeting at the end of May, Gardner said, to provide updates on those studies. 

The resort tax board presented on both its upcoming allocation cycle as well as on collaborative work on the Our Big Sky community vision and strategy plan. 

Other topics discussed at the meeting included upcoming Gallatin County ballot issues to add 3 percent local-option taxes to recreational and medical marijuana as well as an update on the Big Sky Post Office, which has been working to engage local and state leaders to get a foot in the door with the United States Postal Service to address how Big Sky is outgrowing the current facility. 

Al Malinowski, the post office’s contract manager, provided a good news update on the post office, reporting that for the first time since the early 2000s, his funding request through USPS was met in full for the next fiscal year, meaning the entity won’t be pursuing resort tax funds to support its operations. 

During the meeting, Big Sky Owners Association board member Grant Hilton raised local homeowner concerns, most of which were touched on by other presenters including traffic concerns, emergency egress and water supply. 

“This is local government at work,” Germain said, “and your voice really does make a difference.”

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