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Big Mountain neighborhoods look to create resort tax

In World
February 04, 2024

Feb. 4—A group of Big Mountain residents would like a resort tax implemented for the area as a way to pay for infrastructure needs.

The funds would likely be largely directed toward the Big Mountain Fire District.

Steve Cosby, one of the residents and a member of the fire district board, said the proposal was initiated by the need to ensure funding for the fire department. Two years ago the fire board began comparing the salaries of its firefighters, realizing they were well below others in the county and knowing that would need to change.

“It started when we began looking at the long-term funding for the fire department,” Cosby said. “We’re too far away from Whitefish and too far out in the county to rely on other departments. It’s of critical importance to have a fire department.”

A petition by residents within the fire district has been filed with Flathead County to create the Big Mountain Fire District Resort Area. County commissioners on Feb. 8 are set to hold a public hearing and vote on whether to allow a ballot measure to go before voters on May 7. The hearing begins at 9 a.m. at the Historic Courthouse, 800 S. Main St. in Kalispell.

The proposed boundaries for the tax follow the fire district boundaries.

Currently, funding for the fire and emergency medical services comes from a general levy and two voted property tax levies paid by property owners in the district. Even though the value of taxable property in the resort area is growing, because of property tax rules and the increasing cost of providing emergency services the needs of the department can’t be met through taxes alone, those behind the request note.

Cosby said to continue funding the department would mean asking for an additional levy or seeking a resort tax to help share in the cost.

“Ninety-five of our emergency medical service calls come from people who are visiting [Whitefish Mountain Resort],” he said. “We’re five minutes from the chairlift. Based on that we began to investigate a resort tax to help pay for services.”

A resort tax would mean that all users of services and amenities within the resort area would assist in paying for the fire district, including property owners who continue to pay property taxes.

Montana allows for the resort tax to be collected in communities and resort areas that meet specific criteria including with a population of less than 2,500. The basic idea behind the tax is that it allows places with a high number of visitors but few residents to manage the impact on local infrastructure.

The Montana Department of Commerce has certified that Big Mountain is eligible to collect the tax.

Whitefish and Columbia Falls already have a resort tax. In Whitefish, funds go toward street improvements, trails and affordable housing. Columbia Falls has focused its funds on public safety along with infrastructure.

Since it’s not a municipality, Big Mountain would operate as a resort tax area similar to Big Sky and Seeley Lake which have a resort tax.

The maximum rate for the tax is 3%. The tax is typically collected on “luxury” retail sales, lodging, at restaurants and for prepared food and alcoholic beverages.

State law requires a portion of resort tax collections to go toward property tax relief in the area of collection.

As part of the vote, a five-member board of directors would be created from residents of the proposed resort area district who are not members of the fire department board.

After the resort tax board is formed, it would create a plan for the specific amount of resort tax revenues would be distributed and then that would be voted on during another election.

Though ultimately determined by the vote, Crosby said the idea would be that a large portion of the funds would be directed to the fire department and then other funds could go toward infrastructure needs such as paving and trails in the resort area.

In other resort areas in Montana, funds are also distributed to nonprofit organizations, so that could also be an option to provide funding for providers of services and amenities benefitting the resort area.

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected].

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