A mutual benefit
Moonlight Basin and Madison County Commissioners talk Jack Creek Road
Two hundred thousand dollars. That’s approximately how much it costs Moonlight Basin to maintain its 11-mile stretch of private roadway which connects Moonlight, and the rest of Big Sky, to Ennis and beyond. Some of that cost is recovered via road user fees, at about $300 per month per vehicle, but according to Moonlight Basin Vice President Kevin Germain, the company falls short by about $80,000 to $100,000.
These are the numbers Germain presented with a financial aid request to the Madison County Commissioners during their weekly meeting on Jan. 22. “Realizing that road is the emergency access for the Madison County portion of Big Sky, I am here with that in hand to see if there is some kind of arrangement we can work out with the county… to help us break even on the road,” Germain told the commissioners.
This was no simple request. The elephant, so to speak, in the small Virginia City meeting room was addressing just how the county could feasibly use public funds to pay for the maintenance of a private roadway. Recognizing the quandary, and the need for the Madison County attorney to take a look, Germain, who has dealt with the road for 16 years, offered some thoughts on why the exchange makes sense – the crux being emergency access.
“As we all know it’s a critical link for Big Sky to have that road well-maintained, and as you know, in the private sector, you can’t have business propositions that lose money – you’ve got to figure out some way to make things at least pencil, and that’s what I am trying to come up with,” Germain explained.
Snow removal and maintenance takes up most of the Jack Creek Road budget’s cake, but two troublesome landslides, one big and one small, are also in need of a long-term fix rather than the patch jobs that are currently keeping the sliding sections passable, albeit one-lane in the case of the larger slide.
The cost to fix the big slide is $800,000, said Germain, and does not address the smaller slide around the bend down the road. That one’s estimated repair cost is $250,000, but Germain thinks that could be whittled down to closer to $100,000. There will be plenty of private dollars going into the fixes, he said, but admitted help from Madison County with the project, as well as the long-term maintenance of the road, would ease the burden.
Commissioner Ron Nye wondered if the landslides, when fixed, would lower the road maintenance costs. Yes – but not by much – was Germain’s response. “It would come down about 15 percent,” he said. “It’s plowing… we’re at the top of the world up there… for our portion of the road, those plows are going a lot. And we have it plowed daily when it snows.”
Spring and fall grading and gravelling also boost the Jack Creek maintenance bill.
Transportation and taxes
Thinking long-term, Germain said he would like to see a public transportation system on Jack Creek Road. Riders could hop on in Ennis, head up to Big Sky to work or ski, and hop back on for a ride home. Members of the Madison Valley Ski Club, about 120 of them this ski season, already have access to the road via a pass program for a nominal fee of about $150.
“But long-term, I think the biggest use of that road could be for employees that work up in the Big Sky area to be able to live in the Madison Valley,” said Germain. “If we were able to come up with a robust transportation system on that road, I think you would see more employees living in the Madison Valley, which is more taxpayers on this side, more paychecks being spent at restaurants in Ennis, I just think it’s a win-win for the county if we’re able to work on these things together.”
The commissioners were well aware of the win-win – but the conversation quickly returned to the tricky task of using public money to fund a restricted roadway. “The first thing we have to do is get the county attorney to look at it,” said Commissioner Nye, “We can’t pave my lane, or [Commissioner] Dan’s lane,” he said, joking. “Well we could, but we’d be out of business really quick. That’s a line that we have to be really careful, with how we cross, and I don’t know what approach could be taken to make that acceptable…”
Commissioner Dan Allhands agreed, expressing his hesitance in setting a precedent in spending taxpayer dollars on a private road. The commissioners wondered out loud, perhaps there is some other way to solve the problem?
Germain shifted the conversation back to the benefits, mentioning that as Big Sky grows, it needs more and more employees. And the more expensive Big Sky and Bozeman become, the more appealing the Madison Valley becomes.
“But in my mind, the only way we can solve that is some kind of transportation system on that road,” Germain said. “How do we get a four-wheel-drive van system that leaves on the hour to take people up?”
It’s true that a significant amount of property tax money, via Madison County homes located in Big Sky, funds Madison County’s public services. Germain gave it a made-up name – the Lone Peak Taxing District.
That area makes up about half of the property tax income for all of Madison County, and commissioners did not disagree when Germain estimated that might rise to 80 percent sooner than later. Maybe, said Germain, thinking out loud, as that property tax base grows, the Jack Creek Road maintenance funding could be phased into those taxes, in a way that would not immediately affect the rest of the Big Sky – Madison County taxpayers.
Understanding the hurdles, Germain said his hope is that more forms of public/private partnerships can be created. “I truly feel, to make Big Sky world-class, which it deserves to be, it’s going to take a series of public/private partnerships,” he said. “We need help from the public sector as we invest dollars on the private end of things. That’s how you make Big Sky the best it can ever be.”
Commissioner Nye and Commissioner Jim Hart noted that Madison County has contributed to Big Sky’s transportation system, the sustainable water solution study, snowplowing, and more. Hart is currently communicating with the Big Sky Fire Department about possible emergency communication funding.
“We’re not going to turn our backs on you,” said Nye. “We just need to figure out what we can and cannot do.”
The Jan. 22 meeting was just the beginning of a Jack Creek Road dialogue between Moonlight and Madison County; a task committee is being formed and plans to meet in Madison County in late February.