POLSON – If an informational meeting held recently here is any indication, chances that city voters will approve a 3 percent local option tax, placed on the Nov. 3 ballot by city commissioners, are few and far between.
About 30 people listened for 40 minutes as City Manager Todd Crossett presented the parameters of the measure, which would place the tax on non-essential items sold inside the city limits for all but Tribal members.
Several people questioned whether the 20 percent property tax reduction included in what has been called a “resort tax” would amount to more than a few dollars of relief.
“I think property tax reduction is a carrot on a stick,” said Marilyn Burt, owner of Page by Page Books, “and we keep getting beat with the stick.”
Jim Duford, co-owner of First Resort, questioned whether commissioners understood the risk of imposing a tax he believes would cause potential customers not to shop in Polson, opting instead to go to Kalispell or Missoula.
“Maybe our city government doesn’t have the feel of what business may be lost,” he said.
Crossett, who has been on the job for about four months and is Polson’s second city manager since voters changed their form of government, said since Whitefish instituted a similar measure 12 years ago, the city has experienced little loss of business to Kalispell, which is far closer to their city than Polson.
Initially, voters in Whitefish barely passed the tax but it was renewed a couple of years ago by an overwhelming margin, he said.
But many at the meeting said they didn’t believe Whitefish is anything like Polson because the town has a winter season with the ski trade.
Burt said the tax would not collect enough money to make an impact in Polson and more study was needed to fine-tune the proposal.
“You need to take more time,” she said.
Crossett emphasized it is not his job to promote the measure, only to present the information and let voters decide.
“This is not my personal agenda. I have no dog in this fight,” he said. “My job is to help you consider the different aspects.”
But given the city’s revenue if improvements are to be made and infrastructure maintained, additional monies have to come from somewhere, he added.
“We’re in the back of the curve,” he said. “We’re really behind.”
Others at the meeting were concerned about how the tax money would be spent and whether city commissioners would arbitrarily decide to broaden the list of goods and services that are subject to the measure, considering the tax a, “cash cow.”
Crossett assured the audience that a seven-member committee representing business, government and citizens would develop a five-year strategic plan, along with a yearly plan to oversee use of the money collected, which he estimated could be from $300,000 to $600,000 in the first year.
A list of items taxed and not taxed has been available on the City of Polson Web site and also was distributed at the many forums where Crossett has spoken.
It is just a starting point, he said, and if voters approve the measure, the tax can be altered by the oversight committee as situations arise.
But not all members of the business community oppose the local option tax. In a recent on-line survey conducted of members of the Polson Chamber of Commerce, 74 percent of the 66 respondents agreed it was necessary to examine additional revenue sources to finance infrastructure repairs and other projects.
“Our town does not have good curb appeal,” read one response.
“The streets are starting to reach critical mass,” wrote another. “Without some significant money we will be in trouble.”
Many Chamber members who posted additional responses to the survey were against the measure, while others expressed dismay about inefficiencies in the operation of city government.
“This is the wrong tax, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons,” wrote one respondent. “It will hurt business tourism and citizens.”
“We would basically be taxing ourselves all year when our resort season is short-lived,” said another.
When asked whether they would vote for the measure, members were split with 50 percent saying they would not approve such a tax and 45 percent favoring the imposition of a resort tax.
Incoming Chamber president Jeremy Morgret, vice-president and Polson Branch Manager of First Interstate Bank, said discussion about the issue is a positive step in considering the direction Polson heads in the future.
“We’ve started a good conversation,” he said.
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