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Resort Tax allocations: Final chapter 

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The BSRAD board assembled Thursday to finalize grant allocations for 2024. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

The solution may have been unexpected, but it balanced the budget.  

On Thursday evening at BASE, the third of three resort tax allocations meetings finalized grants to Big Sky nonprofits and organizations that applied for fiscal year 2024 funding.  

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.  

At the second session on Tuesday night, the board made preliminary awards totaling $4.07 million for health and safety, and recreation and conservation.  

On Thursday, the Big Sky Resort Area District board accomplished their main objective: they squashed the $300,417 deficit resulting from the first two days. But the board went beyond just erasing the deficit—they also voted unanimously to place $550,000 into BSRAD capital reserves and voted unanimously to place the remaining surplus of $147,829 into an opportunity fund for smaller grant requests that appear throughout the year.  

Counting investments to public works made during the government service allocations (fire department, water and sewer, etc), this shows the total $22.7 million invested by BSRAD for fiscal year 2024. COURTESY OF BSRAD

If a more-than-half-million-dollar surplus is surprising, it’s because a lot changed in the first 15 minutes of board discussion to move BSRAD into the green.  

Early in the meeting, BSRAD Executive Director Danny Bierschwale announced that two organizations reduced their asks: Big Sky Community Organization pulled its request for $100,000 to make BASE a Red Cross disaster relief shelter, and the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center decreased its ask for programming funds by $10,000. Moments later, during public comment, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Brad Niva offered to halve the chamber’s ask for a wayfinding signage project, removing another $100,000 from the deficit. Before any action, the $300,000 deficit had already shrunk to just $90,000.  

Board member Ciara Wolfe later called those sacrifices, and similar ones from Monday and Tuesday, “very commendable and reputable.” 

Next, the board took action that removed about $633,000 in proposed grants and created a working surplus of $542,600.  

Throughout the allocations process, Wolfe maintained that requests for the same services should be increased by 7.5% year-over-year from 2023, and capital projects not be funded beyond the amount matched one-to-one by philanthropy. On Monday and Tuesday as board members elected to fund certain requests in full—some of which requested year-over-year increases far higher than 7.5%—Wolfe voted against those motions and repeated her philosophy. She noted that with recent resort tax collections trending down, and without the added revenue stream from Montage Big Sky (the hotel boosted tax collections after coming online in 2023), the fiscal year 2025 allocations budget might not be able to sustain annual increases above 7.5%.  

Returning to a baseline 

Wolfe made the first move on Thursday.  

“I would like to make a motion, this isn’t going to surprise anyone,” Wolfe said. “I want us to start at a baseline. I want us to think in abundance and not scarcity. Can we please move any of the applicants which have been allocated a greater than 7.5% growth… to the 7.5% growth, and any of the capital projects that have a less than one-to-one match, to a one-to-one match.” 

That motion reduced tentative funding for a wide swath of projects from the Big Sky Community Food Bank, Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, Visit Big Sky, Gallatin River Task Force, Center for Large Landscape Conservation, Big Sky SNO, Grow Wild and Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association—all of which added up to more than a half million-dollar reduction in allocations. 

“I know this won’t be the final motion for the night, or the final action,” Wolfe concluded. She later added: “We need to start with a baseline of what’s realistic, and then look at what’s left over, and determine the ones that are the highest priority.”  

Not everyone agreed with Wolfe’s reasoning. Board member Kevin Germain commented: 

“You gotta look at these projects on an individual basis and I feel that this board has. I am an advocate for the one-to-one match and the 7.5% [limits], if those rules were stated up front before the application process began. But coming in here and deliberating—” Germain said, and was interrupted by some applause from a handful of public attendees.  

“I have some ideas on how to save some money that I’ll make a motion next,” Germain added. “But I do really want to applaud Ciara [Wolfe] for trying to get this community to think about what’s ahead.” 

During public comment, BSCO CEO Whitney Montgomery said it’s troubling that there is conversation of adding new criteria at the last minute. 

“I will also say [it’s] disappointing that the project scores aren’t carrying much weight in this process. That makes me feel like it’s less objective than perhaps it has been in the past,” Montgomery said.  

After a 3-2 board vote in favor of Wolfe’s motion, the budget surplus became $542,600. 

‘The ones that are the highest priority’ 

In the green and facing a number of projects funded below ask amounts, the board began recommending certain projects for full or increased funding.  

Board Chair Sarah Blechta motioned for full funding to the food bank, the Town Center public bathrooms, and GRTF’s West Fork nitrogen reduction. The board voted 5-0 in favor.  

Germain noted that after speaking with water and sewer district General Manager Ron Edwards, the centrifuge sludge press could be built for $500,000—a unanimous vote added $150,000 to the surplus.  

Following that, motions to fully fund CLLC’s highway assessment action plan, GRTF’s water coordination and outreach, SNO’s Climate Action Plan and Grow Wild’s Crail Gardens, wildlife habitat conservation and landowner stewardship also passed. 

BSCO’s trail projects and safety, parks and trails equipment, and GVSA’s Buck Ridge snowmobile trail grooming also received full funding.  

A complicated situation emerged when Germain motioned to reduce funding to Morningstar Learning Center’s campus expansion project—it had been awarded $750,000 on Monday with contingency that the board sees plans before any capital is released.  

“After hearing from Morningstar the other night, it’s pretty clear to me that this is not a shovel-ready project,” Germain said. His suggestion was to grant $200,000 without restriction for MLC to pursue engineering and feasibility costs, and if MLC was ready, they could apply for funds from capital reserves.  

After discussion and public comment from MLC Executive Director Mariel Butan, that motion passed 4-1 and placed another $550,000 into the surplus.  

Germain motioned to fund Visit Big Sky operations in full—that request earned a tentative grant of $200,000 on Monday. 

Discussion around the topic of destination marketing repeated Monday’s talking points: Big Sky visitation has showed signs of slowing, and marketing spend is very low compared to similar destinations. 

Germain rescinded the motion after public comment from Visit Big Sky which stated that marketing dollars are the main priority, not operations. He added a motion to fund marketing and events in full at $275,000. 

That motion failed, 3-2, but Blechta added a third motion to fund Visit Big Sky marketing at $200,000, which passed.  

With nearly $700,000 still on the table, the night appeared young. It aged fast.  

Wolfe motioned to move $550,000 into reserves, to be set aside for Morningstar Learning Center in case MLC settled upon a final and definite plan for its campus expansion project.  

If not used, that money would shift to unrestricted reserves.  

“I’m a big fan of the reserve for big capital, so next year we have [additional reserves] to put toward some big projects if needed, if the right projects come to the table,” Wolfe said.  

The motion carried unanimously. Wolfe followed with another motion, to place the remaining surplus of $147,829 into the opportunity fund for small and immediate projects. That motion carried unanimously, and the faint light at the end of the arduous tunnel that is the allocations process started to shine.  


On a lighter note 

After the meeting, BSRAD Executive Director Daniel Bierschwale commented to EBS about public engagement in this process. 

He said public engagement was “fantastic” in written format before the first meeting, and that verbal public comment at the meetings was “decent.” 

“Our new prioritize tool was a wonderful success that got approximately 10% of the population to participate. Next year, I would love to see that double, and we would also love to see more public comment from folks at the meeting itself, if possible,” he concluded. 

A final note that cannot be overlooked: Bierschwale’s name plate read “Walter White” on Thursday night to accompany his bald head and horseshoe mustache. 

“I am Danny Bierschwale, yes I did lose a bet, yes I am more bald than I was on Tuesday,” he said during introductions. EBS withheld a detailed image of Bierschwale out of sympathy, but the same courtesy was not extended by KBZK-Bozeman whose reporter interviewed him for live television

Haircuts were top of mind for Bierschwale, who told KBZK that he was impressed by the many organizations that took “a haircut on their initial request.” 

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