Transportation district looks at taxing for first time
The Big Sky Transportation District, which operates the Skyline bus service, says it’s seeing increased demand while at the same time facing threats of decreased funding for day to day operations. That’s why at its monthly board meeting on March 6, it discussed expanding district boundaries and floating a property tax mill levy—something it has never done since its founding in 1991.
Skyline saw demand for its service go up 7 percent for local trips in Big Sky and 10.7 percent for travel between Big Sky and the Gallatin Valley during fiscal years 2016-17. The recently awarded TIGER grant will provide the district with funding for new busses and vans, but won’t cover ongoing operating costs.
And while federal dollars for new vehicles are on the way, funding from the Montana Department of Transportation has dropped. That’s because MDT calculates funding in a way that actually shows “a decrease in ridership,” said MDT Public Information Officer Lori Ryan.
“Big Sky Transportation District didn’t expend all of their FY 2017 allocated funds and they had a decrease in ridership (performance) during that year. Their new SFY 19 funding resulted in a reduced allocation,” explained Ryan in an email to the Lookout.
The district disagrees, saying the last time there was a drop in ridership—of 1.1 percent—it happened between fiscal years 2014-2015. The district has each year since then.
That’s why the district was disappointed to see a funding decrease of $68,000 in federal dollars for FY19 that’s passed through MDT. This figure is based on “an allocation formula that takes into account base year expenditures, inflation and performance measures,” said MDT’s Ryan.
District Coordinator David Kack takes a different view: “It seems like we are being punished by MDT for our efficiency—giving more rides for less money.”
While riders crowd into buses and local groups like the Big Sky Community Food Bank ask to become a new stop, the district looks ahead in search of new funding sources—including with local mill levies, similar to the tax increases the fire and school districts put before voters.
Right now, the transportation district is exploring the option of expanding its boundaries to match those of the Big Sky Resort Area District—or resort tax district. It’s a complicated process, requiring signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, then approval from both the Madison and Gallatin County commissions.
Once the boundaries are expanded, then before raising revenue through a mill levy property tax, the transportation district would have to win approval from voters in both counties.
Courtney Jones, a transportation board member and representative of Big Sky Resort said, “We’ve been talking about it for 10 years. I think we should just do it as far as getting the boundaries to where they should be.”
The board took no formal action and will continue to discuss ideas for raising funds to support and expand bus service.
Board member Ennion Williams suggested requesting additional funds directly from the resorts and private clubs—whose employees make up a large portion of local riders.
“There’s nobody but employees on our local bus,” said Williams. “This is an employee transit system we’re operating. I just feel that’s who we’re moving right now and that’s who we’re going to continue to move. We want to improve our system and improve our system for these employees.”
Williams said the Yellowstone Club informed the transportation district that it could be looking to bring on 500 additional employees next winter, which will place further demands on the Skyline system.
Jones countered, saying employees for all kinds of businesses use Skyline, so the burden should be spread out through funding from the resort tax.
“We’re not going to every business unless we’re going to resort tax,” said Jones.
Board member Bayard Dominick, with Lone Mountain Land Company, said he favored the district raising its own funding through a mill levy if the funding goes toward improving local bus services for locals living in Big Sky.
“Any taxing would be just to provide local world-class service,” said Dominick. “Make it a benefit for everybody who lives here and give them a reason to vote for it.”
As for trips to and from Gallatin Valley, Dominick said that could continue to be covered with funding from the resort tax, plus what the district gets from MDT, Gallatin and Madison counties and possibly other sources. However, Kack raised concerns about what might come through the counties.
“This year we’re now in we got $600,000 from the resort tax,” said Kack, adding that Gallatin County put in $75,000, while Madison County contributed $80,000.
Like every district and organization seeking funds from the annual resort tax allocation, the transportation district doesn’t know how much it can count on for next year. And given the massive federal tax cuts pushed through by Congress and the Trump Administration, the counties may have less money to allocate.
This could give county commissioners “an easy no,” said Kack, when the transportation district turns to them in search of funds.
All of the discussion led back to why the district is thinking about exercising its ability to raise money through a mill levy. During the recent board meeting, members brought up the Big Sky Fire District’s successful campaign to increase its funding.
In its plea to voters in 2017, the fire district said it was “struggling to meet the needs of our growing community.” The transportation district—along with a host of other districts, groups, organizations and businesses in Big Sky—may feel the same way.