Seeley Lake’s last resort 

Ballot measure proposes the dreaded “t-word”

Elections are really a mixed bag.

Sometimes the most seemingly innocuous of ballot items can face vehement opposition as Election Day approaches, while an idea traditionally regarded as threatening passes the ballot without incident. To Montanans, little in the loosely defined drum of “big city ideas” proves more intimidating than a sales tax, so why is the first one in Missoula County causing relatively few ripples in Seeley Lake?

Ask Walt Hill, board president of the Seeley Lake Water District and a member of the Seeley Lake Community Council, and he’ll reply plainly: back when the 3 percent luxury tax first appeared before the water board, there definitely was controversy.

“There was a public outcry against the tax because it is a tax,” Hill says.

Resident outcry centered on pressing a resort tax so soon after the passage of a $4 million infrastructure upgrade bond last fall. Vincent Chappell, general manager of the water district, says the bond money will go to double the width of the facility’s intake pipe, build a half-million-gallon storage tank and, more generally, get the district compliant with the standards of state and federal regulatory agencies.

“Hopefully we don’t go beyond that—we’re trying to stay within our budget because we want to have as little impact on the public as we can,” Chappell says.

But even $4 million, split between the district’s 540 households, comes out to an assessment ranging from $30–60 a month, with an average around $51, Hill estimates. According to school board member Dwight Jenkins, the unpadded assessment cost for the elementary school should eclipse $12,000 annually, with churches and non-profits also bearing high burdens.

The public eventually softened to the proposed resort tax with an informal promise to use the money to lighten the burden placed on water district homeowners by the 2007 bond.

Though no covenants exist in the language dictating how the resort tax money actually gets divvied up—that decision would fall to the still-uncreated resort district board—the Nov. 4 ballot claims the tax “will be used to defray the cost of water, sewer and other community improvements.”

That ambiguity doesn’t sit well with some residents, nor does the idea of paying more so soon after the latest assessment.

“We don’t like it—it’s not gonna help us none,” says a local named Mike, who then immediately marched off, refusing to provide another word or his last name. (During an afternoon collecting input in downtown Seeley Lake, this happened more than once.)

Another potential problem, as raised by Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss at the ballot item’s Aug. 6 public hearing, involves households in the Clearwater River drainage. Those residents will bear the burden of the resort tax—through the purchase of a six-pack or a family breakfast at the local diner—without the benefit of having a vote. In fact, the borders of the proposed district cut out residential areas typically regarded as part of the unincorporated town. Shouldn’t these households also have a say?

“I thought so,” responds Ken Kronsperger, who lives just outside of the resort district. “But that’s for the powers that be to decide.”

Hill identifies the hang-up as a state law governing the formation of resort districts, which sets the parameters for imposing an excise tax. The statute forbids the levying of a resort tax any place where commercial operations don’t supply the majority of area income. Most of the surrounding Swan Valley actually subsists on retirement income.

“If we were to include all of Seeley Lake, then we would not meet all the requirements for creating a resort area,” Hill says. “This is also a problem with the state statute because there are people who own businesses who can’t vote.”

Kronsperger says if he could, he’d vote for the tax. He believes that if the water upgrades don’t get some public support, the assessments to finance their construction might be large enough to tax fixed-income seniors right out of their homes.

“Nobody likes the word tax, but it’s a reasonable thing to do to fix this problem,” Kronsperger says. “Three percent—what’s that? I don’t think it’s that big of a burden.”

Patt Donich, owner of the Double Arrow Resort, agrees that homeowners in the district need some help, even though the infrastructure upgrades won’t benefit her business. “I think it’s good to have local control of our money,” she says.

If it passes, Seeley Lake would join Virginia City, St. Regis, Red Lodge, Whitefish, West Yellowstone and Big Sky as the seventh Montana community to impose a resort tax. In some of those places, critics believe that sales tax revenue disproportionately benefits the larger tourist operations, which swell infrastructure needs more than mom and pop businesses do.

Andy Blanton, owner of Café Kandahar in Whitefish, considers the resort tax in his town somewhat of a non-issue since voters there passed it in 1995. “I don’t even know what much of the Whitefish resort tax goes toward,” Blanton admits.

Like Whitefish, Seeley Lake has a double-digit poverty rate and faces the ongoing problem of keeping economic diversity in the community. Unlike Whitefish, it lacks a steady flow of tourism dollars. Advocates of the resort tax expect district revenue more on par with St. Regis, which drew $139,000 from luxury sales in 2007.

That’s about half the anticipated annual collective cost of the 2007 water bond and a negligible sliver of the costs of a sewer system that state regulators will eventually mandate for Seeley Lake. To fix water quality problems evident in the valley, Hill estimates, the capital costs could run upward of $20 million. For elderly homeowners threatened by the water district assessment, that would be something like an auto-eject button. The Seeley Lake community members assert much of that funding will need to come from somewhere else.

“The county should pitch in,” Kronsperger says. “They may not like to hear that, but I’m going to be paying for their emergency response center, so they should pay for this.”
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