Capital questions

Resort tax board and applicants to probe and explain requests for funds
The Big Sky Community Housing Trust has requested $2.7 million “to expand homeownership for the Big Sky workforce.”

It’s resort tax allocation time and the five-member Big Sky Resort Area District Board is reading through a stack of applications from local groups, nonprofits and public officials looking to fund future projects and operations through the rest of the year and beyond. 

     On June 4, applicants will appear in front of the board at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center during the annual Q&A session, when the community’s priorities will be articulated and parsed. The Q&A is a prelude to final decisions by the board about how to allocate $7.8 million in resort tax revenue. In all, the board is reviewing 26 applications totaling $10.2 million in requested funding. That means at least $2.4 million in requests will go unfunded. 

     The board has the discretion to partially fund applications. For instance, the resort tax appropriations for fiscal year 2017-2018 funded 22 percent of a request from the Jack Creek Preserve and 89 percent of the funds requested by Visit Big Sky. Last year, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) asked for $236,652 and the Beehive Basin HOA wanted $10,000. Both received zero dollars.

     This year, the WCS is back with a $75,000 ask “to test, evaluate and market a certification program for bear-friendly stewardship in Big Sky, and to explore adaptations to the bear smart certification program.”

     In its application, Visit Big Sky notes how, “In 2017-2018, Big Sky experienced its most epic winter season on record with skier visits surpassing 500,000 for the first time ever. In direct correlation, resort tax collections in the month of February 2018 alone exceeded $1 million, up 15 percent year over year from 2017, again, the highest on record not just for the month but EVER.”

     Continued growth in the local resort economy increases demand for affordable workforce housing. That’s why the Big Sky Community Housing Trust applied for $2.7 million in resort tax funding “to expand homeownership for the Big Sky workforce, place limitations on short-term rentals, and provide resources to bank land or acquire projects to create as many as 52 new affordable housing units for homeowners.”

     Workforce housing is one kind of infrastructure discussed during a candidate forum on April 2, when tax board hopeful Buzz Davis said, “The number one theme is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.”

     Davis ended up losing by 14 votes to new resort tax board member Steve Johnson, but his point about infrastructure being a priority remains true. The upcoming Q&A will likely include discussion about what is and is not considered critical infrastructure. 

     During the April candidate forum, new tax board member Sarah Blechta listed her priorities like this: “Public safety, infrastructure and then tourism. Without the tourism-based areas we can’t bring in resort tax. But in order to have the tourism, we need to have the infrastructure.” 

     Funding for public safety is found in applications from the Big Sky Fire Department, Big Sky Search and Rescue and the Big Sky Transportation District, which would use its $700,000 request to reduce the number of cars clogging roads in Big Sky and in the Gallatin Canyon.

     Big Sky Search and Rescue is asking for $25,000 to fund “daily operations and training, for excavation costs to expand the parking and driveway area, and for replacement of climbing ropes, upgrades to GPS units as well as the purchase of satellite GPS Tracking Units (SPOTS).”

     With its $952,472 request, the Big Sky Fire Department hopes to refurbish a 10-year-old Ford Medtec ambulance and cover operating costs associated with “tourism driven emergency incident growth.”

     “BSFD is asking for financial support for our capital expenditures to offset the impact of visitor generated activity,” states the department in its resort tax application, describing how in Big Sky, “some 60 percent of the department’s activities are for people who do not live in Big Sky.”

     Those activities spiked significantly this ski season, when in March 2018 incidents were up 23.5 percent over the previous year—which was 32.5 percent more than the year before that. 

      “Historically, the top awards over the life of the resort tax here have gone to the fire department, transportation, the chamber and Visit Big Sky, BSCO (Big Sky Community Organization), the sheriff, water and sewer and then some other stuff,” said Johnson during the April candidate forum. “As I look at that, clearly infrastructure requests are among and remain priorities.”

     Johnson and Blechta will join Kevin Germain, Jamie Kabisch and Board Chair Mike Scholz at the June 4 Q&A. In a statement released after the May 8 election, Scholz said, “Congratulations to both Sarah Blechta and Steve Johnson on being elected to the Big Sky Resort Tax Board. The board welcomes them and looks forward to working together to better serve the community. Their knowledge of the community and desire to help build a better community is recognized and valued by the residents of Big Sky. The board would also like to thank Ginna Hermann and Heather Budd for their past service and Buz Davis and Craig Smit for their candidacy.”

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