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Resort tax board looks to trim requests during Q&A

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By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – With $1.5 million more in resort tax funding requests than the approximately $8 million available, every organization representative who took the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center stage June 4, to defend their application at the Big Sky Resort Area District appropriations Q&A, was asked what they could live without.

For entities like the Big Sky Transportation District and Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association seeking funds to expand operations, the resort tax board wanted to know if the burden of supporting that expansion would continue to fall on resort tax in coming years.

In the public comment period before the Q&A, members from the community advocated passionately for the causes most important to them, namely affordable housing, conservation, health services, and “softer needs” like childcare, education and the arts.

Smaller requests coming from organizations such as Montana Land Reliance; Jack Creek Preserve; the Big Sky Food Bank; Big Sky Trails, Recreation and Parks District; and Big Sky Search and Rescue, were ushered through the interview process with relative ease.

It was appropriations requests nearing or exceeding the $1 million mark that were taken to task, among them the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, Big Sky Fire Department, Big Sky Transportation District, and Visit Big Sky, though the latter had reduced their ask from $1.3 million to $750,000 after securing a lease for their current location.

Tim Kent, branch manager of Big Sky Western Bank, and HRDC Community Development Manager Brian Guyer fielded questions about the housing trust’s $2.7 million request, which would allow them to move forward with the Meadowview Condominium project and create 52 affordable housing units in Big Sky.

Despite general enthusiasm for the project, when Kent started rattling off figures and providing details that were not in the application, the board asked the housing trust to revise their application to reflect the missing information.

“It feels like it’s a little hard to wrap your head around,” resort tax board treasurer Sarah Blechta said, adding that based on the information in the application, she didn’t even know what questions to ask. “Maybe it’s because it’s 6 o’clock. And you said you will provide the information tomorrow and I won’t be so feisty.”

Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat presented charts and graphs illustrating the steep influx of emergency calls in recent years, especially last ski season—largely coming from the tourist sector—to convince the board of their need to expand operations to meet the demand. Staff was paramount, Farhat said; if he had to cut something it would be have to be refurbishing a used ambulance.

A first-time request from Gallatin County 911 for nearly $1 million, for a radio dispatch upgrade that would improve communication across county lines, was met with the suggestion that the board would be more likely to consider providing funding if the county would split the cost.

Closure on the question of whether schools and daycare establishments are eligible for resort tax funding—especially when it comes to tuition scholarships—was finally reached after receiving an opinion by the state’s attorney general.

“So as long as the board is satisfied that you are serving the most people, and not funding an individual but a service, I don’t think we have the real educational barrier we used to,” said BSRAD legal counsel Betsy Griffing.

The primary concern of the board is that financial assistance for families is need-based, which is how the Discovery Academy distributes scholarships, and encouraged Morningstar Learning Center to move in that direction as well.

Jennifer Mohler, executive director of the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance, was immediately put on the defense for the organization’s request of $90,000. After being grilled about how many acres have been sprayed due to her organization’s efforts, and why the county wasn’t contributing more, Mohler said, “No one wants to pay for someone else’s weeds. [Just saying] ‘Big Sky’ precludes my grant requests—they say Big Sky is a community that can afford to take care of its own weeds.”

New board member, secretary Steve Johnson, seemed to understand the threat of invasive species.

“There’s far too little attention to this,” Johnson said, adding later that there wasn’t enough “green talk” going on in Big Sky.

Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of both Visit Big Sky and the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, had to defend her $750,000 VBS request and approximately $400,000 for the chamber, while she and chamber board chair David O’Connor attempted to clear up confusion about how resort tax funds would be used to support administration costs shared between the two organizations.

In response to Visit Big Sky’s tourism marketing needs, which constitutes the bulk of their request, the board questioned the aggressiveness of the marketing campaign, wanted to know if there was a way to partner with more local businesses to leverage marketing dollars, and once again asked what could be cut from the request.

“Hacking something off a limb is difficult to do,” Strauss said. “I think we look at all three buckets, and look to see how we can still maintain the integrity of what we are doing with less funds.”

The final appropriations meeting will be held Monday, June 18, at 6 p.m. at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.

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