By Tyler Allen, ExploreBigSky.com Staff Writer
BIG SKY – The Big Sky Resort Tax Board has a big responsibility to the community it serves, and it spent two days in August identifying how to make the most of that.
The board met on Aug. 8 and 9 to strategize ways to better serve the Big Sky community and allocate resort tax money effectively. The RTB members are Les Loble, Jamey Kabisch, Ginna Hermann, Mike Scholz and Jeff Strickler, and all five attended both of the full-day meetings.
A hired consultant, Buz Davis, of Davis and Associates, facilitated the public meetings, which actually functioned more like a series of working sessions.
Davis spends winters in Big Sky and works as a consultant around the country, bringing groups and organizations together. He interviewed individual RTB members before these meetings and outlined the current situation as he saw it. All the pre-work Davis did was pro-bono.
“I have never worked with a group quite like this,” Davis said at the start of the Aug. 8 meeting. “There is not a lot of dialog between the community and the resort.”
The desire of the board to serve the community was obvious, he noted, and the election of three new board members—Kabisch, Scholz and Strickler—offered a “perfect time to stop and examine the future of community needs and processes in place.”
On Aug. 8, Davis reflected on an interview with one board member who said, “I felt totally alone in there,” during the appropriations meeting. Echoing that sentiment, board member Jeff Strickler said during the Aug. meeting that, “It was frustrating the priorities [of appropriations] were decided in the final meetings instead of ahead of time.”
Davis talked about the diversity of complementary skills on the board that help with the review process, and about the commitment that a volunteer board such as this inherently has. He observed the board’s overall desire to be proactive in exploring the best ways to engage the community in setting its own future direction.
“It comes from living in a small community,” Strickler said. “People know what you’re doing before you do it.”
“You can’t do your best work without the public,” Scholz added.
Tax board attorney Mona Jamison brought up a potential bond statute as a way for the board to make a long-term difference.
“The board can have a vision with reserves, but in two years a new board could change its mind. [However] if a bond statute is passed, it’s the only way to commit long-term funds.”
Jamison went on to observe that Big Sky is a unique community—maybe even one of a kind in the U.S. “This is a rare thing that an unincorporated area has a governing entity that collects taxes and makes appropriations,” she said.
“We don’t want to make ourselves a quasi-city council,” Scholz said, “[but] we act like a city council because we hold the purse strings.”
It was obvious that this session opened up a dialogue within the board that hadn’t existed before. When Davis asked the board if they had conversations like these when proposals came in, the answer was a resounding “no.”
“This group is so committed to this community,” Davis said. “The fact that they haven’t had this type of conversation [in the past] is probably because of tradition, not that they haven’t wanted to have it.”
The first day the board developed two sets of guidelines for resort tax applicants: “musts” and “wants.” The “musts” are requirements for an application to even be considered, and the “wants” are guidelines the board will use to evaluate whether a project will receive funding once the “musts” are satisfied. See below for a list of these criteria.
Day two was spent developing long term strategies for the board to improve its communication with the community. These strategies will be discussed at public board meetings in the upcoming months.
“Everyone felt these were positive meetings,” board chairman Loble said. “We thought a lot of good work was done and we were all very pleased with it.”
The four “musts” for resort tax allocation:
1. Community benefit – The project must benefit the Big Sky community at large.
2. Location – The project must be located within the resort tax district.
3. Continuity – The project must be proposed by an applicant with assured continuity such as a corporation or a limited partnership, as opposed to an individual.
4. Section 19 – The project must satisfy section 19 of the ordinance governing the resort tax district.
The seven “wants” for resort tax allocation:
1. Quality of organization and clarity of application
• Is the organization stable?
• What is the quality of its current operations?
• Does the organization have the ability to execute the proposal?
• Clarity of the proposal submitted.
2. Tourism development – Does the project promote tourism and development as measured by an increase in resort tax revenue?
3. Game changer to the community – Is the project, if completed, a game changer to the community? A “game changer” is a project that brings significant benefit to the community stakeholders (residents, visitors and business community).
4. Big Sky world class resort and community – Does the project help Big Sky become a world class resort and community?
5. Critical infrastructure – Does the project support or improve critical infrastructure (public health, safety or welfare in the community)?
6. Collaboration – Does the project involve collaboration among organizations and other stakeholders in the community to meet common goals, enhancing the outcome of the project and community benefits?
7. Fill need – Does the project fill a community need not currently or adequately being satisfied?