Persons with the purse strings
Four candidates. Two vacant seats. And lots of questions about what they’d open up the pocketbook for as members of the resort tax board.
Those running for the Big Sky Resort Tax Board followed different paths to the recent candidates’ forum at Buck’s T-4. But by offering to serve on what amounts to the community’s finance committee, each was, “Stepping out of the tram line, out of their businesses, away from their family dinner time to step into the hot seat to serve you,” said moderator Tallie Lancey.
The resort tax board is charged with making judgements about what does and does not warrant investment of public dollars collected from the local 3 percent resort sales tax. This year, the pot of money scheduled to be divided up by the board will be around an estimated $6 million, and as current board member Jamey Kabisch told the group at the start of the forum, the two newly elected board members will “get to immediately jump into allocations.”
Election ballots will be sent out on April 23 and must be received by the Gallatin County Election Office by May 8 at 8 p.m.
Then it’s go time for the new and existing board members. On June 4 at 1 p.m., funding applicants will come before the board for a Q&A about their applications. The board will then make funding decisions on June 18 starting at 6 p.m.
As candidate Sarah Blechta knows first-hand, this is a high-stakes time of year for local organizations hoping to secure funds from the tax board. Blechta helped submit a successful application while on the board of the Morningstar Learning Center. She also grew up here and during the forum, Blechta recalled living in “the trailer court” before going away to high school, then college and returning to work for the Yellowstone Club as the director of property owners associations.
“One of the things that makes me a good candidate is I’ve certainly seen this town grow and I’ve been a part of the community for quite a while,” said Blechta. “So it gives me the opportunity to see and kind of understand the unique community that we are.”
In different ways, all four candidates pitched their abilities to evaluate big picture funding needs and priorities.
Buz Davis, a self-described “Maine boy who fell in love with Montana” assisted the resort tax board as a consultant and touted his experience working with businesses, nonprofits and community groups as a trainer and strategic planner.
“I have the skills. I have the experience. I hope you will vote for me,” said Davis.
Steve Johnson moved to Big Sky 17 years ago after a career with the business consulting firm Accenture. He graduated from college in 1968, “which was a fairly interesting year,” said Johnson, then went on to serve in Vietnam and described his childhood hometown of Hammond, Ind. as not a place to put on your bucket list.
But Big Sky is special and that’s inspired him to get involved in the community in many ways.
“I’ve spent a lot of time engaged in volunteer activities at the core of how this community works,” said Johnson, who’s served on local fire and parks boards. “I’ve certainly been a student of this place for the last 17 years.”
Craig Smit was a student at Montana State University and then moved to Big Sky in 1990. He framed himself as a candidate equipped to better connect the board with the community’s priorities.
“I think that I’m in touch with the locals here and what they want to see out of the resort tax,” said Smit, who runs Live The Dream Realty and is the former owner of the Big Sky Conoco.
The candidate forum was organized by the Top Shelf Toastmasters and its members rotated as moderators, posing a series of introductory questions, then queries from the audience of about 70 people gathered in the Montana room at Buck’s.
What makes you a good candidate?
Blechta: “I think what really sets me up for success is my background with financials. I work with 15 different homeowners associations. I oversee several million dollars in budgets, report on this monthly to various boards. And it gives me that understanding of where we’re at, what we’re spending money on, why we’re spending money on it and really kind of looking at it holistically.”
Davis: “I’m a really good candidate because I have experience, I have skill and I have drive. I’ve worked as a community consultant for over 30 years. I’ve worked with rural communities like Big Sky. I’ve worked all over the country. My specialty is collaboratives, cooperatives, networks, business development. It takes a certain set of skills to be able to do that. And I’ve worked with the resort tax board. I think that my skills are an asset to this board. And finally desire. I’ve always loved Big Sky and now that I’ve retired I want to be able to give back to Big Sky. And I think my fit is with the resort tax.”
Johnson: “My volunteer work has taught me a lot about the other end of the resort tax allocation process. Most of my volunteer work has involved application to the resort tax, some of which I’ve written myself. I’ve seen that stuff first-hand. And I think with my work experience I think I have some ideas about how it might work better. I’d like to blend the experience that I have in Big Sky and before getting here and try to make this a better functioning organization.”
Smit: “Well, I think I’d be a good candidate because I’ve lived here for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of growth over the years. I saw the inception of the resort tax and when I owned the Conoco, collecting resort tax and remitting it and I just feel fair and equitable. I think that I can help with that because I have experience there.”
Who do you feel you represent?
Blechta: “I think I pretty clearly represent females as the only female candidate, and the fact that two women coming off the board, that’s something that really played a part in why I chose to run. I also feel the young professional group is really not always well represented in Big Sky. There are a number of us who pay taxes and don’t always have the opportunity to get on these boards. I’m fortunate that I can try and run and try and serve on the board. I also have a daughter at Ophir. I really think I have a large group of people I represent. My family lives here. My father is a small business owner here so there is definitely a lot of people that I know and can feel comfortable representing.”
Davis: “As a member of the resort tax board, you have an obligation to represent the entire community. To do that, in my experience, you really have to fulfill two requirements. One, you have to have a really deep knowledge and understanding of the community. And also the organizations that depend on the resort tax board. And two, in order to get that information, I think you have to be really proactive and intentional. And reach out to those organizations so that you understand them. As a candidate, I’ve already started that. I’ve already met with half the organizations that get funding from the resort tax. I will continue to meet with them so I better understand what their needs are. You know, how we prioritize as a resort tax board to meet the needs of Big Sky.”
Johnson: “I’m the token gray-haired old guy. But seriously, I’ve been unemployed and retired completely since I moved to Big Sky. I don’t work for anybody here. So I’m completely independent. In that sense, I represent you, the voters and the resident community here. You and your desires and priorities are all I care about, nothing else."
Smit: “I feel like I represent the local community. Being here for 28 years and having a real estate company of my own here, it’s important for me to see growth in the area and the money well spent and enhance all our lives. I think that I’m representing you guys (the audience) and I hope to do a good job of it.”
Given that the resort tax district has bonding authority, what kinds of projects are appropriate for bonding?
Blechta: “For me the biggest thing our community needs and part of why we’re all here and the resort tax is here is infrastructure. So I’m not confident that bonding is necessary today. Maybe it is next year. Maybe it is in two years, I couldn’t say. But at the end of the day, infrastructure is really where some focus needs to be put. If you can’t get to the bus transportation, how are you going to use the transportation? So I really think that infrastructure is key for Big Sky to make it better.”
Davis: “It’s interesting, in the meetings I’ve had with the organizations so far, there’s been a set of themes and the number one theme is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. And you can pick, depending on your position, your perspective in this community, what’s really important—transportation, water and sewer. You know bonding I think is something we have to be really careful about in this community. I have been following the resort tax board and they’ve been I think very prudent in not using that type of funding because they’re going to encumber future resort tax boards. At this point, I think that it’s nice to have it if we get in a situation where we’re in an emergency, then it’s good to know you can use it.”
Johnson: “According to the law, (bonding) is a decision the voters will make. Anything that is bonded greater than $500,000 requires voter approval. So the determination of what’s appropriate is going to be put the voters and I think that’s entirely appropriate. Generally speaking, the projects that seem to qualify are public health, safety and welfare. They are infrastructure related and they are projects that are an investment over a period of time, something along the lines of a mortgage.”
Smit: “Public safety, infrastructure, parks and trails and all that, everything to enhance our lifestyle and stuff here in Big Sky. When it comes down to it, it’s going to be a vote to the people and we’ll see what happens when that happens.”
In order, what do you think are the top three funding priorities?
Smit: “I would say probably public safety would be probably number one. Infrastructure would be second. And then more general recreation or amenity based would be the third.”
Davis: “In my experience in this community I think that water is a huge issue here. I do think the important work the Gallatin River Taskforce did this year looking at water and sewer and looking at water. And my understanding is by 2025, we’ll be taking more water out of the bucket than what’s going in. I think we need to use our resources to figure that out before it’s too late. Then housing. And I think public safety.”
Blechta: “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.”
Johnson: “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. As I look at that, clearly infrastructure are among and remain priorities. I think Buz’s comment is right as far as in the future we need to do something about affordable housing. We need land to do that. And we need to do something about water and sewer, particularly in the canyon and those will require major investments.”
What is the resort tax board’s role in planning for the future?
Davis: “Well, the resort tax is a critical funding mechanism for this community. And in my experience, we call it a hub. We have all sorts of organizations that interact and intersect with the resort tax board. The board is looked at and it functions as a leader in the community. My discovery in talking with the organizations that I’ve talked with so far is that we don’t have a master plan in this community and I think that’s an issue the resort tax could help facilitate. All these pieces of the puzzle and put them into one plan so we can plan effectively and make logical decisions.”
Blechta: "I know historically resort tax has asked ‘What is your three-year plan?' to each organization that asks for funding. But as Buz said, really sitting down and asking through a master plan where you could say, ‘Hey Morningstar, hey BSCO, hey chamber, what are your real, hard plans for the next three years?’ to really understand what the needs are in the community versus the wants and what areas we can really focus in on. I think also getting out in the community as a board and understanding what others think and others are feeling. I think that’s really important. I don’t think everyone can get to the resort tax meetings. It doesn’t always work for your schedule. But being able to really get in with various people in the community I think is helpful.”
Johnson: “Big Sky has become a pretty significant community in the state of Montana. And the resort tax already controls more money than most of the cities and towns in this state. My emphasis would be making sure we manage the delivery of that money, funding against genuine community priorities and make sure it is spent very, very wisely. This board is controlling resources that would easily land them in the top 10 of the cities and towns around here. So with management tools and what I can draw on from my experience helping businesses run better is what I would be concentrating on.”
Smit: “I feel that Big Sky is growing and it’s growing fast these days. And we’re going to experience a lot of growing pains and we’ve got to be able to accommodate for all the people that are coming here with our infrastructure with water, with transportation, with housing. And then also, to get more opportunities for the guests who are coming here, too. We wisely have to spend the money on that stuff and just kind of prepare for the growth that we’re going to see.”
Are you in favor of raising the resort tax rate above 3 percent?
Johnson: “There are two very strong sides on that subject and I think both need to be listened to. The ‘Penny for Housing’ thing was an interesting effort in that regard. Generally speaking, I thought that was wrong-minded in the sense that it predetermined a priority, which may not exist forever in Big Sky. In that sense, I was not in favor of it. At the same time, there have been a number people who’ve said first and foremost we’re going to need money to take care of what’s done around here. There’s that aspect as well. I think the jury is still out on that one and the community is certainly not of a single mind on that subject.”
Blechta: “I am in favor of bringing it to the public. I think that everyone deserves to have an opinion about it and it is certainly not a consensus in our community. Our community has a right to vote whether they want it or not. It needs to go to the greater public.”
Smit: “I didn’t want to see the extra percent. I think that we need to focus on refining the collection of the tax and just make sure we’re hitting all the areas that need to be taxed. And I think we could probably make a little more money that way.”
Davis: “I think it was unfortunate that the Big Sky community didn’t get an opportunity to vote on this. I think we should have been given the opportunity to say yes or no to whether we wanted to add 1 percent. I don’t think the 1 percent should have been earmarked for housing. It should have just gone into the general fund for our needs in our future. I personally, if I had the opportunity to vote, I would vote for the 1 percent because I think we’ve got some serious infrastructure problems here. And I don’t see any other way to raising the capital to deal with it. So I’m not afraid to take a position.”
What more can the resort tax board do to support the development of affordable housing?
Davis: “The resort tax, they earmark some funds to use for affordable housing and I think that’s appropriate. We have other organizations in Big Sky that are focused on that. My understanding is we’re doing a study right now on housing needs in Big Sky. I’ve heard that we’re about 300 homes in the hole. If we stop the trucks coming up the canyon right now, we still need 300 homes. So the resort tax isn’t going to solve that problem. But I do think it’s an important mechanism for us to develop affordable housing here in Big Sky. What I’m learning in meeting with these organizations is Big Sky has a reputation for putting the cart before the horse. We get way out ahead of our infrastructure. So, yes, I think the resort tax board should help with affordable housing.”
Blechta: “I do think resort tax should help with affordable housing. I’m not confident that the ways that have been described so far are the right ways. I think there is certainly a place for deed-restricted housing. I don’t know if that’s a choice I would want to make. There are other people who may feel differently. I know there has been some discussion with helping with down payment assistance. Could be really useful for people in this community. A lot of people that I have talked to don’t necessarily have a problem with the mortgage, it’s coming up with the money to get the mortgage. I’m not against the deed-restricted housing, I just don’t know that that’s the most impactful. The most impactful may be another way. But I do think we need to come up with a solution. It’s incredibly hard to live here and many of you know that and we’ve made those choices. As a person who’s had employees it’s a struggle and I want to see people be able to stay.”
Smit: “Affordable housing is needed in Big Sky. We need to house the workforce. I think resort tax can help in that, I’m not sure how at this point. Maybe through the bonding, which they have the authority to do. It’s partly going to be on what projects come available and how viable they are. It’s something resort tax could help with I believe.”
Johnson: “As Buz touched on, there is an affordable housing working group that has been formed and it is just now putting together its ideas for what needs to be done. There are a wide range of things that need to be done, not all of which involves money. I think there is certainly a need for land committed to affordable housing. I think there is also the need for management tools committed to affordable housing like significant changes in zoning to accommodate this sort of thing. And these tools are beyond the tool box that’s available to resort tax. How we answer this going to involve a combination of things. Certainly among the resident community who are the constituents of this group, it’s a big deal, no question about it. Just from what I’ve seen in working with the affordable housing working group, clearly land is an issue. Banking land is an issue. A lot of that land is likely going to be in the canyon, so water and sewer capacity is an issue as well. So this is a very big and complicated thing that this community needs to solve.”
Sarah (Blechta), everyone is questioning your employer (Yellowstone Club) and your involvement on the board as a conflict of interest. So please respond to that, but also let us know your feelings if your potentially elected, then two out of the five board members represent CrossHarbor. How would you handle that?
Blechta: “So for clarity, I don’t work for CrossHarbor. But I do work for the Yellowstone Club. I can honestly say the Yellowstone Club did not ask me to run. I was actually asked by another member in the community who’s a female, who felt as well it did not seem any other females would join the board. And with two getting off, that was a concern. So I chose to run for that reason, full well knowing that the Yellowstone Club would get brought into it. And, you know, I can’t vote on issues that are a conflict of interest. You abstain. And I can’t say that enough. You have to abstain when there’s a conflict of interest. I have sat on boards where there is a conflict. I have taken myself out of various votes for Morningstar because I had a child there. I also raised the rates more than once at Morningstar, knowing full well that I was going to also pay those rates because it was what was in the best interest of Morningstar.”
Should the resort tax board return to funding the water and sewer district?
Smit: “I feel that, yeah, it depends and what their plan and their submittal is, but yeah, water and sewer is important. Important to the growth, important to handling the treated effluent. I would like to see it not discharged into the river and maybe infrastructure, if we need more to safeguard that, then yeah, I’d like to see that. Water could be an issue for us in the future.”
Johnson: “It’s clearly key infrastructure in this community. There’s no question about it. And I go to as many as I can the water and sewer board meetings because so many of the issues they discuss are kind of related to zoning. But if you’ve paid attention to the Gallatin River Taskforce and the work they’ve done over the summer, the basic position the community is in is we’re running out of effluent disposal capacity and we’re running out of water supply. And we think we’re about half built out. So if that is the case, unless something is done about those capacity limits, how are we ever going to build out the limits of what Big Sky thinks it can be? So, it is clearly key infrastructure. They do have their own independent bonding authority and they know how to use that, but it’s also something that’s worthy of investment from resort tax. And it’s commonly used in other resort tax entities across the state to deal with that kind of infrastructure.”
Davis: “I worked with the resort tax board. I was doing strategic planning with them when they were making this decision to cut the sewer and water free that they could charge the users to support sewer and water. But we all know that sewer and water is the reason we have a resort tax. We couldn’t build without expanding our sewer and water. I think we’re in that situation again. I also did strategic planning with sewer and water. I do believe that they have the best interest of Big Sky in them. I think water and sewer is a key issue. And well before, the issue was, ‘Well, people aren’t using it down in the canyon.’ But that’s not going to be the case going forward. So yes, I think we should use funds for it.”
Blechta: “I do. I think that water and sewer is not only a resident and a property owner issue. It’s a resort town issue. And it’s a tourist issue. We’re having people come here and using water and sewer. And I don’t think that burden should be simply on the property tax payers. I think that having resort tax monies for that is important. Do they need it every year? It depends. I don’t know. I do think we should be able to bring that back to the table.”
Do any of you feel that there is a part of the current resort tax legislation that needs to be reformed and if so why?
Blechta: “I always think that clarity is important. You know, you write these things in the early ’90s and the town changes. Everything changes. And I think they (the current board members) are doing a great job right now to ask questions and it’s hard to do. I think it’s always a good exercise to provide that and help the community understand it.”
Johnson: “One of the issues that the board has been trying to deal with for a while now is whether or not it makes sense to try and apply the resort tax to club dues. And that is something, as I look at the law, and certainly in other communities where this is done, it is imminently debatable whether the law allows for that or doesn’t allow for that. So I don’t see necessarily the need for a legal change. But I do see some value in getting an attorney general’s opinion on that subject rather than trying to do it ourselves and finding ourselves in court. It’s a distraction I don’t think we need.”
Smit: “It’d be good to get some clarity on the club membership issues. And also, the board has been talking about expanding the board to seven people. I think that it is written in the Legislature it’s five. It’s specifically five. If there was a change, it’s a pretty easy change to make possibly. If there’s such a thing as an easy change with the Legislature. That would be the way I’d go.”
Davis: “I’d say, I think Steve’s right. We’re trying to deal with whether membership dues with clubs are taxable. If you look at the law, it’s somewhat nebulous. It would be nice if it was cut and dry, but I think this tax board can deal with that issue.”