From tourist wallets
Into what we want Big Sky to be
It’s the closest thing Big Sky has to a city council budget meeting—the annual resort tax allocation, held on June 18 at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. Jamey Kabisch, chair of the resort tax board, kicked things off, saying, “Let’s go through the funds available.”
Projected on a giant screen behind the board and resort tax staff was the available amount—$8,734,207. It was the pie and over the next couple hours, the resort tax board carved it up for 26 applicants.
Kabisch opened the meeting with public comment and Eric Ladd from L&K Real Estate and Outlaw Partners dug into Big Sky’s appeal to the outside world, telling the board the community has reached a tipping point and is now officially on the radar of tourists from around the world. And while that will help fill resort tax coffers, it also presents Big Sky with a challenge—how do we protect the wildness that makes this place special?
“The very thing we’re marketing is now under siege,” said Ladd, urging the board to support all the proposed allocations supporting trails and conservation. “Because without that, we don’t have anything to market. So please, please, please, support those things that don’t have a voice.”
No one gathered inside WMPAC with the tax board knew it at the time, but while the allocations meeting proceeded inside, Big Sky’s wild side was on display just outside and across Highway 191. About a quarter mile away, a herd of cow elk and a their calves grazed in the willows by the Gallatin River. While the tax board meeting rolled on, wildlife watchers pulled over to marvel and listen as the calves let out chirping cries.
Back inside, the resort tax board members began what at times felt like an appropriation lightning round. A member made a motion and it was approved:
Big Sky Community Library: $73,500.
Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association: $25,000.
Then Board Member Kevin Germain moved to place $1.3 million in the “sinking fund,” which is an invested reserve fund.
“I think this sinking fund has served this community well,” said Germain.
New Board Member Steve Johnson said he didn’t oppose the motion, but challenged the group to prioritize, “Making this money work instead of admiring the pile.”
The motion passed and right off the top, $1.3 million was set aside while applicants for funding watched the $8.7 million total funds begin to drain.
The next line item to come up was the most financially demanding of all 26 applications—funds for the Big Sky Community Housing Trust.
Initially, the housing trust asked for an investment in a specific workforce housing project already breaking ground—Meadowview off of Little Coyote Road. But Board Member Mike Scholz urged the board to take a longer view and create a “land bank fund” that’s available for the housing trust and HRDC. Together, he said, the board and local housing advocates can work together to set criteria for future projects.
“I think it’s critical to our community moving forward. I hope it’s not the sole source of funding for community housing. But I think we need to jump start it right now,” explained Scholz, who pushed for $2.2 million, more than requested by the housing trust and HRDC.
After some discussion, the board ultimately approved $1,945,000, or 98 percent of what the housing trust requested.
Later, HRDC’s Brian Guyer said he was pleased by the board’s effort to look down the road and anticipate the need for more community housing in the years to come.
“This is extremely positive. It allows for more flexibility and transparency. But it also shows the resort tax board is very supportive of housing,” said Guyer, explaining how the housing trust and HRDC focused its application by “asking for a specific amount of money for a specific project. And they took a step back and said, ‘No we think that perhaps going with a more broad approach and not really nailing the funding to one specific project.’”
Guyer said having these funds set aside for the housing trust to direct “to the most appropriate project” was a positive move. Right now, the Meadowview project is part of the discussion, but the arrangement gives the community “flexibility if things don’t work out on that specific deal.”
Next came the first big suggested cut by a board member as Germain moved to strike $100,000 from the Big Sky Community Organization’s funding request. He said he’d like to see more planning before putting that much money into a new parking lot at the Ousel Falls Trailhead.
This caused Johnson and Scholz to rise to BSCO’s defense, with Scholz saying, “If you go there (Ousel Falls Trailhead) in the summer time, you’re looking for a place to park. And it makes a huge impression on all our visitors.”
New Board Member Sarah Blechta also spoke up for BSCO, noting how much the group has done to develop a variety of funding sources.
“Their fundraising shows the community really believes in them,” she said.
The resort tax board ended up approving 100 percent of BSCO’s $693,986 request.
After this vote, the board again slipped into a mini lightning round:
Morningstar Learning Center: Rollover funding for the infant building capital project ($86,665) and $113,450 for a tuition reduction program. Both are aimed at supporting the Big Sky workforce with childcare options.
Big Sky Community Food Bank: $32,000.
Women In Action: $60,000.
Big Sky Post Office: $60,500.
Big Sky Transportation District: $700,000.
The board then voted to shave three percent off of WMPAC’s request, granting it $199,899, before another series of quick approvals:
Big Sky Trails, Recreation and Parks District: $5,000.
Big Sky Search and Rescue: $25,000.
Montana Land Reliance: $14,851.
Jack Creek Preserve Foundation: $3,500.
That was followed by another investment in wildness. The Wildlife Conservation Society saw its proposed funding cut down to $48,136, a 36 percent decrease, while some on the board praised the WCS’s work.
“I’ve been pretty impressed with the results with the bear-aware efforts,” said Germain.
Next up: Discovery Academy, which was seeking “$52,000 to support our early childhood preschool program with scholarship funding; and $18,000 to help with renovations to our Community Learning Center (CLC) to increase the number of community accessible programs offered and better functionality for multiple programs to occur simultaneously,” according to the Discovery’s application.
Kabisch opened discussion, saying Discovery Academy offers “a different product at a higher price. I’ve been struggling with that.” What he meant was the board already approved childcare support at Morningstar, so why does the board need to also fund Discovery?
Blechta responded, “Some kids need a different type of program. There are some kids who can’t succeed at Morningstar no matter how hard Morningstar tries.”
Johnson also spoke up, saying, “They are two different private businesses. They offer the community a choice. They support the workforce and I think we should support it.”
Then Germain noted the insatiable demand for childcare in Big Sky: “There are capacity issues. There’s a waiting list.”
Kabisch gradually lightened his touch, offering a compromise, “I’d be into funding the scholarship program and not funding the renovations.”
This triggered Johnson, who said, “I think that $18,000 in the context of $8 million is not such a big deal.”
Germain shot back, “$18,000 is still $18,000.”
The board then cycled through a couple rounds of voting before finally approving Discovery’s ask, but only the $52,000 for tuition assistance.
Moving on, the board approved Big Sky’s obligation to the interlocal agreement funding law enforcement provided by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office.
Germain said, “I do like this arrangement, but it also makes me wonder why we’re spending resort tax on something that’s the ultimate responsibility of the county.”
Scholz explained, “This community desired a higher level of service from the sheriff’s department. That agreement stepped up the amount of service that we get.”
The motion passed, placing $286,382 into the kitty supporting public safety officers working out of the Big Sky Sheriff’s Office.
Next, Germain moved to fund most of the request from the Big Sky Fire Department—everything except the money for refurbishing an existing ambulance. This touched off a round of debate, with Kabisch saying, “The ambulance is the one thing that makes the fire department money. So it’s a revenue generating aspect of the fire department.”
Then Johnson noted how Big Sky has just three ambulances and “one was having repeated problems with brakes” during the extra busy winter season in early 2018.
Johnson described Big Sky as a community that invites people here to take risks on the trails and slopes, “And son of a gun, they get hurt. I think the full amount including the ambulance is entirely reasonable.”
Fire Chief Bill Farhat approached the podium and explained that by refurbishing the ambulance and not buying a new one, “We’re trying to be frugal. Trying to save money where we can.”
In the end, the fire department’s request was fully funded: $952,472.
The same can’t be said about Visit Big Sky, the community’s destination marketing organization.
Johnson introduced a motion to cleave nearly a half million dollars from the VBS request.
This aggressive move stirred Blechta: “I don’t think cutting them that much is in anybody’s best interest. What happens when we have a bad snow year? It’s coming. We need to make sure we’re a year-round destination.”
Johnson countered and seemed to suggest unofficial word of mouth marketing would be enough to keep the good times rolling. “I think last winter was a huge step forward in getting the word out on Big Sky,” said Johnson.
That prompted Scholz to remind the board, “The tax was written to support tourism development. That was intentional. It was like investing in a business. You want to make sure that revenue continues.”
Scholz then detailed how Colorado cut its spending, “And three years later they had to increase by sixfold to try and find the business they lost. They found out it was the wrong way to go. I’d hate to see that happen here. It would come back to haunt us, I guarantee you.”
Echoing a common refrain about the mission of the resort tax, Kabisch said, “We have major infrastructure needs we’re trying to address. We need an ambulance. We need to take care of our community. We need a place for people to live who work here.”
Then Germain gave voice to all the tourism marketers in Big Sky, insisting, “I think the dollar amount on the table, it would be more than a cut. It would be a cut to the bone.”
VBS CEO Candace Carr Strauss no doubt agreed. She defended the VBS ask, saying any cut from resort tax could snowball into more cuts next year.
“With the legislative session coming up in 2019, the percentage we get from state dollars is in jeopardy,” said Carr Strauss, who went on to spell out the VBS mission to create a year-round tourism economy in Big Sky.
She warned West Yellowstone planned to significantly increase its number of hotel rooms, which will cut into the current spillover business Big Sky enjoys. There’s also a hotel room boom underway in Bozeman, with the developer who planted the new SpringHill Suites next to I-90 now planning a five-story hotel by Town Pump on East Main Street, adding 110 rooms to the local mix.
The board went back and forth discussing VBS before finally approving $640,000 for VBS, 84 percent of its original request. Carr Strauss would later see her funding request for the chamber of commerce get cut by 17 percent.
The Arts Councils of Big Sky saw just $5,000 trimmed from its proposed funding level of $195,000.
Then came the Gallatin County 911 project, and again, discussion turned to why Madison and Gallatin Counties aren’t doing more to support improved radio communication between law enforcement, emergency responders and 911 dispatch in Bozeman.
“Madison County needs to come up in a huge way,” said Johnson.
The board voted to approve $462,808 to help create “a multiple channel 800 MHz mission critical radio network based on Lone Mountain.”
The Gallatin River Task Force—one of the conservation groups alluded to at the start of the meeting—was taken to task for not having more self-sustaining fundraising and more support from the 35 stakeholders who participated in the Sustainable Water Solutions Forum.
Johnson said when it comes to water issues, local leadership “has to be broader than just water and sewer district.” He went on to challenge some members of the solutions forum from Bozeman, saying, “They can step up to the plate with their own budgets as well.”
Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, defended her group’s request, noting how it included a dashboard that’s an education tool capable of equipping the community with the facts about “the health of the watershed.”
Buz Davis, who lost his bid to join the tax board this year, defended the contributions made by solutions forum stakeholders, saying, “Maybe they made a huge contribution to the task force that isn’t being recognized by the board at this time. And I wouldn’t want to discourage this contribution.”
The board ultimately peeled away 15 percent of the task force’s original ask, granting it $507,209.
The meeting wound down with the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance receiving 63 percent of its $90,750 request, while the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association got $280,571 to build a refrigerated rink, like the ones popping up in places like Philipsburg and Salmon, Idaho. It will reportedly add another couple months to Big Sky’s skating season.
After running through and voting on all the funding applications, the allocated funds came up $423,722 short, so the board voted to pull that amount out of the sinking fund, thus balancing the spreadsheet projected onto the screen.
The fund had been at $2,084,422 after last year’s appropriations, but it was trimmed to $876,278 in the end to remain on budget.
At the July 11 board meeting, Board Treasurer Sarah Blechta will recommend new investments for where the funds will be placed, based on proposals from American Bank and First Security Bank.
Immediately following the meeting, as community members lingered in the WMPAC parking lot, some drove across the highway to watch the elk in the willows and along the bank of the Gallatin River.
On one side were the chirping calves, calling for their mothers. This seemed to raise concerns among the cow elk gathered on the other bank. So into the river they went, one after the other, crossing the swollen current to return to their calves. When the first cow made it across and burst through the willows, the calves swarmed around her.
Stopping on his way home, Board Member Mike Scholz pulled up and gazed admiringly at the wild unfolding scene, saying, “Isn’t it amazing?”