A Step Closer to a Bigfork Resort Tax

By Beacon Staff

From street cleaning to snow plowing, from emergency services to extra parking – all could be paid for if Bigfork established itself as a resort area and instituted a resort tax.

“There’s a lot of people out there where ‘tax’ is just a naughty word,” said John Lang, part of the committee that’s spent the better part of the last nine months researching the logistics, feasibility and purpose of a resort tax.

“When we started doing this presentation, we wanted to answer ‘why’ we would have a resort tax,” explained committee chair Bruce Solberg. “The question became ‘why not.’”

The Bigfork Steering Committee established a resort tax subcommittee last year to research the option. The subcommittee presented their findings to the BSC at its April 10 meeting, when it voted unanimously to move forward.

In Montana’s seven existing resort communities, the tax is used first and foremost to maintain and improve the areas’ infrastructure. Additional funds cover community projects and pay for its administrative costs. Anything left over can be put in the bank to collect interest.

The committee researched Montana’s resort communities while compiling the report.

“[Other communities] couldn’t believe we haven’t capitalized on this earlier,” Solberg said.

Virginia City, West Yellowstone, Big Sky, St. Regis, Whitefish and Red Lodge already have a resort tax. Seeley Lake was recently designated a resort area and is in the process of circulating petitions to get a resort tax on the ballot.

West Yellowstone started itsresort tax in 1986, the first in the state. It has decided to break up the revenue so that 2.5 percent goes toward marketing and promoting the community, 2.5 percent for administrative costs, 5 percent for property tax relief and the rest for infrastructure needs. For 2007, the town reported generating more than $1 million from the resort tax.

Bigfork would not be eligible for property tax relief from a resort tax because it is unincorporated. The committee worked with Ken Weaver, who also worked with Whitefish as it established their resort tax. Weaver came up with a projected revenue between $500,000 and $750,000, based on the Whitefish model and actual Bigfork business revenue.

The resort tax committee put together two maps outlining the proposed boundaries of the Bigfork resort area. Both share a northernmost boundary at Coverdale Road, a western edge at the Flathead River, and the county line as the southern border.

The first proposal is a little larger, and stretches east to Swan River Road. The second puts the eastern boundary at Bigfork Stage. At issue is population; a resort area can only have a population of 2,500 people. The first proposal encompasses approximately 2,359 people, and the second 2,083. Both encompass the junction at Highways 35 and 82, where some new growth is projected.

Specific items to be taxed are not yet determined, but lodging, restaurants, bars and luxury items fit the bill. Luxury items are more easily defined by describing what they are not. For example, groceries, automotive and hardware would not be considered luxury items, but money spent at the golf course would. Three percent is the maximum tax allowed.

“I think Bigfork has come to a time of decision,” BSC member George Darrow said, whether to allow the community to deteriorate, or institute a proactive, financial means to pay for problems associated with its growth.

The next step is getting the state to designate Bigfork a resort area. From there the Taxable Item List would be finished, the structure and authority of a Resort Tax Board detailed and a vote timetable outlined. Then, a petition would circulate to get the issue on the ballot, followed by public meetings. Ten to 15 percent of the population in the proposed area would need to sign the petition before it could go to a vote.

Related: Raiding Resort Tax Funds

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