Commissioners from both Madison and Gallatin counties attended a joint commission meeting in Big Sky on Wednesday, April 10. Over 100 people attended the event, and presentations were made by a variety of interest groups about the future of Big Sky and inter-county collaboration. (R. Colyer)

Madison, Gallatin county commissioners meet in Big Sky

Joint commission meeting discusses census data, tourism and the economy

BIG SKY—Madison County commissioners Ron Nye and Jim Hart as well as Gallatin County’s Joe Skinner, Scott MacFarlane and Don Seifert attended the biannual joint commission meeting hosted at Big Sky Resort on Wednesday, April 10, drawing a crowd of more than 100 people to spectate and listen.

A variety of groups were represented in the audience, from the Gallatin River Task Force and Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department to housing agencies, chambers of commerce from both counties, fire and emergency departments, school districts and the Resort Tax board.

The focus of the meeting was not to actively make decisions, but for the commissioners from both counties to be brought up to speed and updated on the goings-on in and around Big Sky and collaborations between Madison and Gallatin constituents and agencies.


2020 Census

The first speakers of the day were Jeri Bucy of the U.S. Census Bureau and Whitney Bermes, Gallatin County’s communications coordinator, speaking on the importance of the upcoming 2020 census, specifically for the state of Montana.

Bucy said that her goal was to increase outreach and education to the public about how the census will be conducted next April. She said that in a relatively low-income state such as Montana, every person really does count.

“What the census is really all about is getting resources back to the states,” Bucy said. “A miscount in any capacity is really a huge loss for Montana in terms of funding.”

A reason for that is that the federal government allocates roughly $2,000 per person per year according to the census data it receives. So, if one person doesn’t get counted, that’s $20,000 the state will miss out on until the next census a decade later.

The census data also helps allocate funding for transportation, delineate voter precincts and determine a state’s congressional delegation. It’s very likely, Bucy said, that if Montana does a good job of reporting its population numbers, it may get a second congressional delegate in the coming years.

Bucy said the areas where it’s most vital to get out nuts-and-bolts information of how the census is run are rural and tribal sections of the state. The Census Bureau is partnering with the communications office of Gallatin County to do just that. One notable difference about this year’s census that is important to advertise is that 2020 will be the first year that residents can fill out the census in the typical fashions—on paper or by phone—or online, a new addition. 

That self-reporting is an important part of things, Bucy said. Because the census often includes confidential and personal information, self-reporting keeps that information safer and more accurate than when residents wait for a census representative come to their door to ensure that they participate. It also saves the Census Bureau money if they don’t have to send thos employees out. 

Gallatin County commissioner Don Seifert noted that Big Sky in particular is a place where more accuracy is an important goal for the upcoming census, particularly because of how many seasonal employees live there as well as construction workers who are a part of Big Sky’s rapid development.

“Those are numbers we’ll use for the next 10 years,” Seifert said, “so they’re very important to capture.”


Parks, open space

Next up on the agenda was Ciara Wolfe of the Big Sky Community Organization, who presented details of the two-year master plan for parks and open space currently in place for Big Sky and the surrounding areas. 

Wolfe touched upon the short- and mid-term goals of the plan, which include expanding the boundaries of Big Sky’s parks district to match the corresponding resort tax area outlines. She said that on the Madison County side, these lines all match up, but in Gallatin County they do not. That will ensure that all the proper resort tax lands are being considered when the time for taxation and reimbursements rolls around.

In addition, Big Sky is in the process of updating its trails master plan to address maintenance and connectivity with the over 60 miles of new trails they are aiming to add in the next decade or so. They’ve identified areas of current trails that need improvement and maintenance, especially the very popular Beehive Basin and Ousel Falls trailheads. 

Revenue from the Resort Tax will help facilitate these improvements, including making the Beehive Basin trailhead part of a nature preserve and adding trash receptacles, educational signage, restrooms and a parking area to that access point.

One of the biggest mid-term goals of the master plan concerns what Wolfe called “the most ambitious campaign as a community that we’ve ever taken on.” She said that at the end of this month the Big Sky Community Organization would be unveiling its project plans for an indoor recreation center, something that has been a frequent request from residents of the area for several years.

Wolfe said the center will be around 25,000 square feet and will be a $17.5 million project, $12 million of which has already been raised. Details of the project won’t be clear until that plan is unveiled, but the goal for the center is to break ground this summer and open in 2021.


Gallatin River Task Force

Karen Filipovich of the Gallatin River Task Force came before the commissioners to give an overview of Big Sky’s sustainable water solutions forum, which took place in February. 

The forum evaluated community priorities for water use and conservation, as well as creating the Big Sky Headwaters Alliance, a coalition of business, recreation, conservation and government partners working to manage Big Sky’s water resources. The focus, Filipovich said, is outreach, as well as water security and resiliency of local waterways and habitats.

She said one challenge that Big Sky will face is balancing community and wilderness water needs while keeping in mind factors like fishing interests, wildland fires that occur with greater and greater severity across Montana and being a good steward to their partners downstream, ensuring that the water that flows out of Big Sky is just as healthy as the water that flows in.

The Gallatin River Task Force and Big Sky Headwaters Association will be partnering with the Nature Conservancy in the coming months to establish a water fund that focuses on water security, ensuring that access, supply and watershed health is maintained year-round for future generations.

“If we can keep healthy ecosystems,” Filipovich said, “we can also increase water security in times of drought.”


Community Visioning Strategy

Megan Moore, of Logan Simpson Consulting based in Fort Collins, Colorado, then took the floor to explain the firm’s work in helping lay out Big Sky’s Community Visioning Strategy, which used data and questionnaires to examine the values of Big Sky’s residents, gauging the best ways to ensure that all the reasons people come to—and stay in—Big Sky are preserved and capitalized.

Moore said she was amazed by the level of community involvement from the people of Big Sky; she filled up 240 one-on-one interviews, something that she said rarely if ever happens when she conducts these kinds of surveys. She also said around 1,400 people became involved by attending events and giving feedback, while 1,700 more were made aware of Logan Simpson’s aims via email and other communications.

When asked why they came to Big Sky and what they love most about the area, the most common responses largely overlapped. Residents were both drawn to the area and stayed there in large part because of the accessibility of outdoor activities, the small-town feel of the community, the quality of live and the character and involvement of the people who live in Big Sky. 

When it came to things that could be added or improved, community priorities included the establishment of an overarching vision for Big Sky, a greater array of youth activities, more accessible and affordable housing, improvements in both public transportation and public safety and a prioritization of conservation as the rapid development in the area continues.

Moore said she was currently in the process of synthesizing all that information and working with Big Sky to put together the vision statement that the community wants to see, as well as short- and long-term goals. She will be returning to Big Sky later this year to present those developments and expect the final plan to be wrapped up and ready for implementation before the 2019-2020 ski season begins.


Affordable housing

The final agenda item before the two sets of commissioners was something that both counties—as well as most of the other 54 around the state—have been struggling with in recent years: accessible and affordable housing. It’s a problem that becomes even more acute in a microcosm community such as Big Sky.

Big Sky superintendent of schools Dustin Shipman and Habitat for Humanity’s Dave Magistrelli presented a project that will soon be coming to the community in an effort to provide housing for teachers who struggle to find affordable and long-term places to live in Big Sky. The project is pending the passage of two levies in the school district this spring.

The levies, which will be voted in Gallatin County, include a $40,000 general fund levy earmarked for personnel funding and a $600,000, five-year levy for the district’s building reserve fund. That is the money that would go toward the Habitat for Humanity project.

Shipman said in the past year he has had no fewer than three teachers in his district come to his office in tears, telling him that their rentals had been sold and they couldn’t afford any of the other available options in Big Sky. It’s a problem that must be addressed, he said, noting that two-thirds of his staff are uncertain whether they’d be able to remain teaching in Big Sky for three to five years due to the severity of the housing issue. 

Magistrelli then presented the outline for the Habitat for Humanity project, which would build a complex of 1,000-square-foot apartments on campus for teachers to live in. He noted that the construction would happen at the cost of materials and nothing more, largely due to volunteer work that would accomplish most of the labor aside from plumbing and electric, which would be contracted out. Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin County, he said, would make no profit, and the total cost of the construction would be around $135 per square foot.

That particular project must wait upon the outcome of this year’s vote levies, which will happen in the coming weeks.

With the completion of the agenda items and no visitors desiring to offer public comment, the commissioners expressed awe at the large turnout to the meeting and thanked presenters and visitors for their attendance and information. The joint commission used to be an annual event and was changed to occur twice yearly due to the volume of information and the amount of public involvement. The next joint commission meeting will take place this fall.

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