Jennifer Mohler with the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance explains why the resort tax board should seed continued work fighting unwelcome weeds in Big Sky.

Resort tax funding

Who’s asking for what
“We’re not asking you to put in facilities for future growth. We’re asking you to put in facilities for what’s happening right now.”—Ciara Wolfe, Big Sky Community Organization

Jamie Kabisch, chair of the Big Sky Resort Area District Tax Board, described the annual allocation of resort tax revenue as, “One of  the most fun processes for our community that happens every year.” 

     On June 18, at 6 p.m. in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, the amount of fun each applicant experiences during the final allocation process may correlate directly with how Kabisch and the rest of the board vote on their requests. There’s a gap of at least a million bucks between what’s being requested and what the resort tax district has on the books. Disappointment appears to be baked in, but there’s also a lot to be excited about. 

     Here’s a rundown of what resort tax funding applicants are asking for—according to an inventory provided by resort tax staff—and what was said during and after the June 4 Q&A session with the board at WMPAC. 

     Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance: $90,750 to support “This locally led not-for-profit 501(c)(3) whose mission is to conserve native plants, wildlife habitat, and water resources in the upper Gallatin watershed through noxious weed education and management.”

     Jennifer Mohler with the alliance told the resort tax board this request for local funding makes sense because, “No one wants to pay for your weeds.” She went on to say the prevailing attitude is Big Sky is a community that can afford to pay for its weed problems.

     Board Member Steve Johnson spoke up, saying, “I’d like to see some mandatory compliance.”

     But to this, Mohler again framed the challenge of invasive weeds as a local one: “There’s little to no stomach with that at the state level,” she said. 

     Johnson then added, “There’s far too little attention to this around here.”

     Big Sky Fire Department: $952,472 “For operations to meet tourism driven emergency incident growth and to fund a refurbishment of a 10-year-old ambulance.”

     Since 2011, said Fire Chief Bill Farhat, emergency call volume in Big Sky has gone up by 75 percent. 

     “This explosive growth was not anticipated by anyone,” Farhat told the board. “We’re exceeding what they expected to see in 2020 and we saw that last year.”

     Prior to a couple of years ago, continued Farhat, the department didn’t track the number of concurrent calls. Now, responders with the BSFD are working two or more calls 40-50 percent of the time, with as many as six calls coming in at once. 

     “We struggle to keep five people on duty,” explained Farhart. “So we very quickly outstrip our capacity. The numbers like we’re seeing are just unprecedented.”

     If there’s a small structure fire, 14 people is what’s recommended as an adequate response, said Farhat. Yellowstone Club can send a couple of extra crew, but it takes an hour to hit 14 with reinforcements coming up from Gallatin Gateway. 

     “Trying to get out the door with enough people is a big problem for us,” said Farhat. 

     Big Sky Transportation District: $700,000 because “In fiscal year 2019, Skyline hopes to provide more hours of service and more rides, both within Big Sky and between Bozeman and Big Sky.”

     Ennion Williams, chair of the transportation board, confirmed for the board that most passengers traveling between Bozeman and Big Sky are residents of Bozeman.

     That’s why as the district considers expanding its boundaries, it’s considering one day pushing those boundaries all the way down into Bozeman and Belgrade. 

     “I think we’re going to shoot for the resort tax boundary first,” explained Williams, meaning the transportation district might expand to match the resort tax district boundary. But Williams added, “We’ve had some conversations—Do we include Bozeman and Belgrade?”

     In a follow up phone call, Transportation District Coordinator David Kack added, “When the district was formed in 1991, Big Sky was pretty small. Because a lot of the people who ride Skyline are accessing jobs in Big Sky from the greater Bozeman area, there’s talk where you try and do something—Do you include those? What you have to balance are the political realities. Can we get the people in Four Corners or Greater Bozeman to vote for that? So we’re having conversations. First, let’s at least get that to the resort tax boundaries.”

     The soonest any expansion of the Big Sky Transportation District could occur would be during a local election in May 2019. Kack noted how the current transportation district boundary does not include Moonlight Basin, the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and part of Town Center. 

     Once the transportation district boundary is expanded, the district board could then reach out to a wider base of support and ask voters to approve a mill levy. This would create a new revenue stream for a service that’s in growing demand. 

     Warren Miller Performing Arts Center: $205,326 “For artist fees and communications for the 2018/2019 Winter Season, the 2018 Big Sky Conservatory and improvements to facility audio equipment.”

     John Zirkle, director of the WMPAC, explained the center’s workflow like this: In the summer they help artists and students create, in the fall and winter it’s time to present new work and performances, and year-round, WMPAC strives to inspire. 

     “Summer time is about relaxation and wintertime is about charging,” said Zirkle in a follow up call. “If you look at our year-round operations, what we’ve learned is summertime is for creating new work and wintertime is for presenting new work.”

     Zirkle said he wants artists and writers who come to Big Sky to, “Push the conversation forward. Take your time and make something good that makes sense in the national contemporary conversations.”

     He cited the production of “Levity” as an example of what’s possible. It started coming together during the summer of 2015, “Then we presented it in its full form in the winter of this year. We had record attendance. And it’s one of the shows that helped get us on the map. It’s got people in New York, Broadway talking about Big Sky.”

     Zirkle explained it’s important to talk about the whole yearly cycle because each piece complements the next and, “We can’t pull from one program or the other.”

     Zirkle also emphasized the importance of bringing new works to life locally, “Specifically because of the story we were able to weave that it was created in Big Sky. The shows that are made here just resonate more.”

     When asked what he would cut first from his resort tax allocation request, he pointed to a $16,796 line item for upgrading the theater’s audio equipment. 

     In WMPAC’s resort tax application, there’s an overview of the upcoming winter season running Dec. 27-March 30, 2019, which includes audio storyteller Ira Glass from “This American Life” and comedian Tig Notaro. 

     The Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association: $25,000 “To provide two additional weekly groomings of the Buck Ridge/Doe Creek Road snowmobile trail during the snowmobile season.”

     The association reports a jump in ridership along Buck Ridge, from 16,000 per winter to 20,000 this past season. 

     Hence the potential need for additional resort tax support. 

     “We’re supplementing it so we have better and safer trails,” said Board Member Mike Scholz. 

     Big Sky Community Organization: $693,986 “For operations and maintenance of our communities’ public park and trail systems, as well as for improvements to Beehive Basin and Ousel Falls Trailheads, and purchasing winter trail grooming equipment to provide a more expansive winter community trail system.”

     Over the last three years, the BSCO has grown by 200 percent in its annual operating revenue, including capital projects. At the same time, BSCO’s outside fundraising has grown at a greater rate than its annual resort tax requests. Resort tax increased 160 percent, and fundraising went up by 220 percent.


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