Tentative awards to organizations in health & safety, recreation & conservation—BSRAD to balance $300K deficit on Thursday
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Lively jazz soothed attendees before the second of three funding allocation sessions held by the Big Sky Resort Area District on Tuesday night.
Between the jazz and another energy-boosting spread of healthy snacks catered by Gourmet Gals, the BSRAD board prepared to review four health- and safety-related applications requesting a total of $420,000, and 27 applications for recreation and conservation projects requesting a total of $4.26 million.
In total for fiscal year 2024, Big Sky nonprofits and organizations requested 52 total projects amounting to $10.7 million, and BSRAD has $9.1 million in its allocations budget from resort tax collections. At the first session on Monday night, the BSRAD board voted on preliminary awards totaling $5.34 million for arts and education, economic development, public works and housing.
The story of Tuesday night, as the board expected, was the looming deficit after preliminary funding decisions were made—allocations were roughly $300,000 over-budget once the dust settled.
On Thursday night, in a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. at BASE, the board will make the hard choices necessary to balance the budget.
Board Chair Sarah Blechta made a statement before the final project—which garnered a robust and emotional handful of public comments—went to vote.
“This is real life,” Blechta said. “This is really difficult. Thursday is going to be incredibly difficult, and I think there will be people in this room [whose organizations] have been funded in full, that will no longer be funded in full on Thursday night. I just need everybody in this room and everyone online to remember that.”
Blechta emphasized that the board recognizes how important these community-focused projects are to their respective leaders, employees and supporters.
“I don’t want you to think we do not know that, that we do not see that, and we do not feel that,” Blechta said.
Worth noting, a few weights were lifted from BSRAD’s shoulders during Tuesday’s session: the Gallatin River Task Force swam against the current of rising construction and engineering costs, announcing a reduction of nearly $60,000 to their Gallatin River Access Restoration project.
And as a deficit appeared more certain around 7 p.m., Big Sky Community Organization CEO Whitney Montgomery approached the microphone.
“In an effort to help this tough situation we find ourselves in, we’d like to remove two of our projects from consideration,” Montgomery said. BSCO removed a total of $125,000 in requests between two projects: new accounting software and a two-way AV communications platform for BASE. BSCO will fundraise for those efforts.
Even with nearly $200,000 removed from consideration, the board still enters Thursday with the challenge of trimming $300,417 from the grant pool.
Of the 29 projects reviewed on Thursday, 27 were funded in some amount.
The Big Sky Skijoring Association’s Annual Best in the West Showdown did not receive funding, as the board cited the for-profit side of the event involving prize money, and the potential to set a precedent for similar events. Board members expressed general favorability toward the event, but voted unanimously against funding.
BSSJ Director Justa Adams gave public comment, expressing gratitude to the board and stating an unresolved challenge:
“We need land,” Adams said. “Anyone in Big Sky, any piece [of land], it doesn’t matter… Reach out to me if you have someone who wants to donate land for us to use every year if we’re going to continue to keep this [event] here.”
The Best in the West Showdown’s future location remains to be determined.
Health and safety funded in full
The health and safety category had four projects: Wellness in Action requested $200,000 for a counseling services hub and building remodel, and $50,000 for sliding-scale support for counseling services; Big Sky Community Organization requested $100,000 to upgrade BASE into a Red Cross disaster relief shelter; and the Big Sky Community Food Bank asked for $70,000 for general programming.
All four projects were funded in full.
Consistent with her philosophy employed on Monday, board member Ciara Wolfe maintained that for the organizations requesting funds for the same service provided, funding should increase by 7.5%. She recommended $55,500 to the food bank, based on that principle.
Food bank manager Sarah Gaither gave public comment to explain why the food bank requested a much larger increase. While inflation increased food cost about 8%, Gaither said, “we had a 97% increase in service numbers this year. Almost double. We had to purchase almost 50% more food this year.”
The board voted 4-1 to award $70,000 to the food bank.
Recreation and conservation: A quarter of total BSRAD funding slated for parks and trails
During discussion of a $1.12 million request from the Big Sky Trails Recreation and Park District, Wolfe noted that the board was on pace to allocate 26% of fiscal year 2024 funding to parks and trails.
“Parks and trails are incredibly important. Are they 26% of all our allocations important to you? I want to hear from you on that,” Wolfe said, inviting public comment.
The board voted 3-1 to fully fund BSTRPD’s $1.12 million request for recreational asset maintenance, which will sustain local parks, trails and the BASE community center.
Other parks and trails projects included:
BSCO’s Big Sky Community Park improvements, which include a new playground, moving volleyball court to expand the bicycle pump track and skate park, and preparations to expand the soccer field. The board voted unanimously to fund all $718,000 requested. The board also voted unanimously to grant the full $50,000 to pave and enlarge the pump track.
BSCO requested $150,000 for trail projects and safety, and $115,000 for parks and trails maintenance equipment. Both were funded in full.
BSCO also requested $50,000 for a community warming hut beside the Marty Pavelich Ice Rink, which would double as a green room for Music in the Mountains performers. The board voted unanimously to fund $37,500 toward that project, because that portion is met by a 1-to-1 match.
The Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association requested $30,000 to increase grooming capacity on the Buck Ridge trail. The board voted 4-1 to fund it in full.
Public weighs in to support environmental projects
The board reviewed environmental projects from Big Sky Sustainability Network Organization (SNO), Gallatin River Task Force and Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance which recently rebranded as “Grow Wild.”
The Gallatin River Task Force requested just over $1 million across six projects: West Fork nitrogen reduction; water planning, coordination and outreach; Middle Fork restoration; Gallatin River access restoration; water conservation; and watershed monitoring.
All six projects were funded in full, but Big Sky SNO and Grow Wild faced different outcomes.
Big Sky SNO requested $710,000 across five projects. The board was hesitant to fund all five projects in full, due to the organization’s relative youth and the new projects proposed—Wolfe emphasized her preference for existing, proven programs.
The Green Build Toolkit, part of SNO’s Climate Action Plan “to compile resources to design an energy-conscious building guideline/checklist website,” was eventually funded at the full amount of $90,000.
SNO’s “One Less Car” incentive program was funded in full, for $50,000.
SNO’s Solarize Big Sky: RiverView, a $420,000 project to install solar panels on the RiverView apartments (under construction), was funded at 50%, by a 3-2 board vote to grant $210,000. A separate Solarize Big Sky project to offer credit to home and business owners who install solar panels, was not funded, requesting $60,000.
The Climate Action Plan’s implementation, a $60,000 request which would help cover the costs of a well-established consultant, was funded in full.
The board discussed SNO’s projects at length, even asking Peyton which project—between solar energy credits, Green Build Toolkit and CAP implementation—she felt the organization could postpone.
“If we’re sitting here in this room in 10 years after not investing in these [projects] now, we’ll be in the same situation with climate that we are in housing, that is possible more dire,” Peyton said.
She believes the Green Build Toolkit can influence the community at increasing scale, as “the number one driver [in] the community [is] development,” she said.
The board voted 4-1 to fully fund all Big Sky SNO projects except for the Solarize Big Sky credit program.
Toward the end of the meeting, Grow Wild’s five requests were reviewed, totaling $169,703.
The board voted unanimously to fund Grow Wild’s $42,337 invasive species education ask at a 7.5% increase year-over-year: $36,609.
Later, Wolfe motioned to apply the 7.5% principle to all four remaining Grow Wild projects: Crail Gardens programming, landowner stewardship and education, wildlife habitat conservation and clean recreation education.
Grow Wild Executive Director Jen Mohler gave public comment:
“As you can see, we [asked] the lowest number in the [conservation] category. We do a lot for very little. And I need help. I was very fortunate that I found a grant to get a Big Sky Watershed Corps member who has been invaluable. And yeah, I need help—this community is growing, the threats are growing, demands are growing, requests are growing.”
Mohler said the small chunk out of Grow Wild’s small ask would be enough that Grow Wild would not be able to afford the corps member, Sean Simpson.
Simpson, added public comment about the chain reaction caused by invasive species:
“You lose wildlife. You lose your recreational opportunities when you have invasive species come into your community… They cut out our native plants, and our native plants are what bring elk into our communities, and moose. And when you have elk and moose, you have bear. And when you have native plants, you have native pollinators come in. And when you have native pollinators, you have all these native birds,” Simpson said.
Following public comment, board member Kevin Germain said he’s not in favor of decreasing the funds seeing that it would eliminate personnel.
“If you don’t think invasive species are a problem around here, take a hike,” added Board Treasurer Steve Johnson. “If you need a guide, call me. I feel very strongly that we should fully fund these projects.”
The board voted 4-1 in favor of full funding to Grow Wild.
On Thursday night, BSRAD will need to identify $300,417 to be removed from 48 funding awards. Blechta said she expects the boardroom at BASE to be packed.
For those on the fence, the quality of Monday and Tuesday’s snack boards cannot be overstated. Thursday’s menu will include shrimp cocktail, Asian noodle cups, house-made hummus and mini pigs in a blanket, according to BSRAD.