The City of Whitefish undertakes ambitious projects. Besides the new City Hall, which has come under fire as a “Taj Mahal” in the making, there is now a rushed mail-in ballot this month for a proposal to increase the resort tax from 2 percent to 3 percent to fund or help fund the purchase of a conservation easement in Haskill Basin. The easement (allegedly) will protect the water supply to Whitefish and recreational opportunities for all in the future. Local businesses and citizens have come out for and against the resort tax increase. I recreate in Haskill Basin often thanks to the Stoltze lands policy.
I live outside and above the City of Whitefish, but go through it every day, work there and pay the taxes of the resort town. I am against raising the resort tax. I think one of the biggest statements Whitefish can make about its reputation to a visitor or a local is that when the cash register adds up to 99 cents or $99 you pay 99 cents or $99, not $1.02 or $102. People remember that.
The lack of a sales tax (or a resort tax) is a big selling statement to the public. But alas, we have one. (Some businesses absorb the tax in their pricing for this very reason). Some people may take note that it is 2 percent presently and not the 4 to 7 percent they encounter elsewhere. But for how long?
I travel to Kalispell to make larger purchases simply to avoid the tax. So do a lot of other folks. What does that do to the local businesses? It hurts them! They lose the sales, revenue and potentially employees.
What about other ways to collect the money for the easement? Some say there is “philanthropic fatigue,” so hence not to seek larger private contributors for this easement. I am sure that is true, but what about local citizenry “tax fatigue?” Folks are tired of being taxed on their properties’ values, and taxed at the grocery or other retail store. They truly do have tax fatigue. Once a tax is imposed or an increase to a tax is granted, it rarely, if ever, is reduced or removed. And people say another 1 percent does not matter. Well, I hear complaints all the time at City Beach when folks have to launch their motorized boat and pay the extra $5 to launch!
Fiscal responsibility and accountability by government officials is imperative. While this easement is a virtuous and maybe even a necessary expenditure, it is all the other “less than virtuous and less than necessary” expenditures that never get addressed and removed.
Whitefish spends elaborately on streetlights, city halls, schools and many other projects. The easement could be a bond issue, which will go away when paid for. It could be paid for by increasing the cost of water and sewer to the users. A resort tax increase will be here forever (unless a sunset provision is enacted), taking more money from the lean pockets of the hardworking citizens and visitors to the city. The bulk of the tax burden is on local retired and hardworking individuals and families. I do not want to pay it.
I am sure there are many other creative ways to fund the easement. Slow down the process and think through these consequences. How about better drafting of the wording of the measure? So, worst case, if the citizens do pass it, make sure that its proceeds are only used for the negotiated cost of Haskill Basin lands, as well as a “stop it and chop it” provision, so when the $8 million is reached, the 1 percent tax increase immediately and permanently goes away. At a minimum, let’s put contractual language in this measure to protect our citizens. Or do not vote for it.
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