Friday, December 01, 2023

Celebrating the benefits of our resort tax

by John Muhlfeld
| September 27, 2023 12:00 AM

Like most Montana communities, Whitefish has struggled for decades to adequately maintain and improve critical infrastructure in our community including our streets, parks and water and sewer utilities. We are fortunate that our forefathers and many community leaders had the vision in 1996 to realize the need for a local option sales tax … the Resort Tax.

The tax was proportioned to be used for property tax relief (25%), improvements to existing streets, storm sewers, underground utilities, sidewalks, curbs and gutters (65%), bicycle paths and other park capital improvements (5%), and merchant’s administrative costs (5%).

Since 1996, over $19,000,000 has been rebated to homeowners for property tax relief; $33,000,000 to streets and water and sewer infrastructure; $2,400,000 to parks and trails, and $7,400,000 to pay for the Haskill Basin Conservation Easement. In 2024, we are anticipating rebating property owners over $2,400,000 in tax relief, a staggering figure. Realizing the significant benefits of the tax, Whitefish residents overwhelmingly voted to extend the City’s Resort Tax in 2021 for an additional 20 years, with only minor changes to the allocation.

From time to time, we acknowledge the need to change course based on the needs of the community, and that time is now. For well over a decade, our town has struggled with the cost of housing. What was once a $75,000 home on Somers Avenue in the late 1990’s now sells for over $600,000, an eight-fold increase in just 25 years.

The affordability gap is only increasing, and the workers who make up the fabric our community are being forced to find housing in neighboring communities which – like Whitefish – are experiencing dramatic increases in housing prices. Fortunately, the Resort Tax provides Whitefish a unique opportunity to help address this problem.

I am pleading with residents to vote YES in favor of the Resort Tax reallocation, and provide up to $27 million in revenue over the next 20 years. Our City Manager and Council have prepared a plan detailing how these dollars would be leveraged to support affordable and workforce housing initiatives.

Let me be clear – the city is not going to become a developer. What we will do is partner with private developers wishing to provide some form of affordable housing within their new developments. Resort tax revenues could also be used to reimburse building permit and impact fees, or perhaps cost-share with down payment assistance.

The Resort Tax has allowed Whitefish to shift a portion of the financial burden for maintaining City infrastructure off the shoulders of our taxpayers and long-time residents. Re-allocating 10% of the tax to support affordable workforce housing projects and programs would give us a unique opportunity to help our rank-and-file workers continue to live – and play – in the town where they work.

John Muhlfeld is Mayor of Whitefish.

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