By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Nine Montana resort communities or areas collect a tax to fund local services and programs. On Dec. 12, seven of them were represented on a conference call spearheaded by the Big Sky Resort Area District board.
Four of the five BSRAD board members—Heather Budd, Kevin Germain, Ginna Hermann and Jamey Kabisch—met in Big Sky Resort’s Shoshone Board Room and discussed a wide range of topics facing resort areas and communities with representatives on the call from West Yellowstone, Red Lodge, Whitefish, Gardiner, Virginia City and Cooke City.
Issues including short-term vacation rental collections, economic development hurdles and legislative efforts were on the docket, and the discussion indicated that each district has unique challenges.
Lanie Gospodarek in West Yellowstone and Whitefish’s Chuck Stern both described problems collecting tax from travel or guide companies located outside of their districts, but picking up clients inside of those districts.
“This is obviously one of those muddy topics,” said Kabisch, adding that he’d like to look at West Yellowstone’s ordinance and revisit Big Sky’s. “This is something we’ve struggled with, with some specific industries, but I think it could become a bigger issue so that we’re not double-taxing the people that are providing the services. We all want to be pro-business and pro-growth.”
Germain then spoke about the legislative issues he’s been working on, particularly in regards to workforce housing and resort tax.
He said Mona Jamison, BSRAD’s attorney since its inception in 1992, is retiring after the 2017 legislative session but has been employed to do some “defensive lobbying” for the district this session.
“We pay Mona to spend a lot of time in Helena looking at bills that are being drafted and coming down the pipeline,” Germain said. “[She’s] specifically looking at bills that could impact us as a resort tax community.” Jamison is looking at 17 state legislative bills that could affect resort tax.
Jamison said the state Legislature is more conservative after November’s election, which could be a hurdle for passing a bill that would raise the resort tax option from 3 to 4 percent.
Germain recalled the 2015 session and a bill that would have allowed resort tax communities to vote to increase the cap to 4 percent. The increase was earmarked specifically to fund historic preservation but Big Sky worked with Representative Kerry White to have it amended to include workforce housing. It passed the House decisively but failed in a 25-25 tie in the Senate.
“We here in Big Sky see workforce housing as the biggest hurdle to economic growth,” said Germain, adding that a 2014 affordable housing study showed 83 percent of Big Sky’s workforce commutes from elsewhere.
“I’m wondering if by calling it something more like ‘affordable housing’ or ‘community housing’ … if you have people saying they’re adamantly opposed to ‘workforce housing,’ can you sell it differently?” suggested Rebecca Demaree from Gardiner.
“We will work on what the best word is,” Jamison said. “Certain words conjure up certain emotions, stereotypes, etcetera … Workforce housing is the word we’ve been using and it ties in directly to economic development.”
The attendees touched on a number of other issues facing each community, including subsidizing daycare, infrastructure needs and delinquent tax collectors.
Kabisch closed the nearly two-hour summit by saying it would be helpful to circle back and repeat the conference call with the parties involved during the legislative session.