Resort tax board looks to unify community
By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor
BIG SKY – At the Jan. 9 Big Sky Resort Area District meeting, the board discussed a number of topics, including an update on the community strategic plan, hiring the new position of district manager, streamlining the appropriation application, and enforcing business licenses for short-term vacation rentals.
Much of the meeting, however, was devoted to the lobbying effort in the 2019 Montana Legislature, and the draft bill to give resort areas and communities the ability to petition voters to approve an up to 1-percent increase in resort tax for infrastructure needs.
Board members Steve Johnson and Mike Scholz are on the district’s legislative steering community and attended the West Yellowstone Town Council meeting Jan. 3. Scholz said the council unanimously approved funding half of the contract with lobbyist Taylor Luther Group, and signed off on the contract. The Big Sky Resort Area District will pick up the other half of the contract, which will total $50,000 if the bill becomes law
The draft bill, available on the district’s website at resorttax.org, currently reads: “‘Infrastructure’ has the meaning specifically provided in the petition or resolution submitting the question of the additional resort tax to qualified electors.” However, Scholz noted that the language could change as it moves through the legislative process, and the definition could be tightened by each resort tax community that chooses to put a petition before its voters.
“The legislation enables the individual resort tax entities to deal with a petition, it says you can do this, it doesn’t say you have to,” Johnson said. “What we anticipate may come out in the process is an itemized list of what does constitute infrastructure.”
“Infrastructure … will include not just water and sewer but we will expect to see, on that list somewhere, workforce housing,” Johnson added.
As Scholz noted in a Jan. 16 interview with EBS, at least three major long-term community projects could necessitate funding in the future: the Big Sky Water and Sewer District is planning a nearly $22 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade; a study done eight years ago on a potential wastewater treatment facility in Gallatin Canyon projected a cost of approximately $20 million; and workforce housing in Big Sky is 400 to 600 units short of the current need.
The board discussed how different resort tax areas and communities will have different needs, and Treasurer Sarah Blechta mentioned how Whitefish is looking to address property-tax relief for its residents.
“A fundamental thing you’ve got to understand about this resort tax thing is that, in order to do anything, what you do has to be politically viable at two levels,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do something that we can get through the Legislature, and we’ve got to bring it back here and get something that we can get through the local voter population.”
Johnson also said that it’s important to note that during their trip to West Yellowstone, one of their town councilmen said that Big Sky did not have a unified voice during the 2017 legislative session, when a similar bill earmarked for workforce housing died in a 25-25 vote in the Senate.
During the public comment period, Chairperson Kevin Germain read an email from Big Sky resident Dr. Alan Shaw, who also sent the email to West Yellowstone Town Manager Dan Sabolski: “‘I repeat my intention for all of us to work together to get this done in a smooth, non-contentious manner. In that regard, several of us who were involved in this matter at the last legislative session feel strongly that the word ‘infrastructure’ be clearly defined in the bill. Following is a suggested verbiage that you might find helpful. … The term infrastructure for the purposes of this bill shall be considered to be defined to include the basic physical systems of a community or municipality and shall include transportation, communications, sewage, water systems, and electric systems.’
“I sure would love to go to Helena with one voice,” Germain added. “I’ll use an expression to make a point, but legislation is sausage making. There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s going into there, and here is a first draft.”
Johnson and Scholz compiled a list of the organizations, governmental agencies around the state, and major Big Sky businesses that each board member would be responsible for contacting and educating about the legislation. As of EBS press time on Jan. 16, that process was ongoing.
“We just want to make sure everybody understands the bill and make sure we’re as transparent as possible,” Scholz said on Jan. 16. He added that the steering committee that emerges from the Big Sky Community Strategic Plan would be the ones to bring any petition before voters in this community, if the bill passes.