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Voters to decide fate of resort tax for Big Mountain

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | February 14, 2024 11:00 PM

Voters who live on Big Mountain will get to decide whether the area should be allowed to collect a resort tax.

Flathead County Commissioners on Feb. 8 approved placing on the ballot May 7 a measure to create the Big Mountain Fire District Resort Area. 

Before the vote, commissioners heard from residents who said implementing the resort tax would provide a necessary avenue to assist in paying for staffing and operational costs for the Big Mountain Fire District. While Whitefish Mountain Resort — the largest landowner on the mountain — argued that it might not be the best solution. 

Steve Cosby, one of the residents and a member of the fire district board, said property owners in the district are footing the bill for the department to serve the whole area, including the resort.  

“To be able to meet our budget, the district has brought two different voted levies that were intended to be temporary and at some point became permanent,” he said.  

Big Mountain Fire Chief Ben Duvall said providing a wage that retains firefighters and paramedics has been a challenge for the department. 

“In the last 10 years, we’ve lost eight employees to municipalities,” he said. “Enticing people to come to the district has been difficult because of the pay.”

Sue Oemichen, past chair of the district board, said the funds would assist in paying for necessary equipment upgrades. 

“This puts not only the burden on the few residents up on the mountain but be able to share the cost with everybody that uses the beautiful mountain,” she said. 

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. 

Whitefish Mountain Resort President Nick Polumbus questioned whether a resort tax would be collected from tourists. He pointed out that most people who use the mountain are residents.

“The mountain is in full support of the Big Mountain fire department and ensuring that it is fully funded, but we’re not sure that establishing a tax district is the best way to do it,” he said. “This 

disproportionately affects residents of Flathead County. It’s important for you to consider that 60% of our visitation comes from Flathead County and those are people who don’t get to vote on this.”

The Montana Department of Commerce has certified that Big Mountain is eligible to collect the tax. The boundaries for the resort tax would follow the fire district. 

The maximum rate for the tax is 3%. The resort 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. 

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. 

Whitefish and Columbia Falls already have a resort tax.