Community gets first look at resort tax proposal
POLSON — As a way to fund needs in the city, the Polson City Commissioners called on a diverse group of people — business owners, property owners and community — to serve on the Economic Development Council.
The EDC’s first task was to look at whether or not there was interest in a resort tax for Polson. The group thought there was enough interest, researched the concept and presented their first draft of a proposal for resort tax to a crowd of 75 folks.
The meeting was held in Polson Middle School’s lunchroom on a stifling summer day, Aug. 19. Most of those present were against the tax.
Becky Dupuis, EDC chair, began the informational meeting by explaining why the group even considered a resort tax. That reason is Polson’s streets.
“I guess we have all driven around and know our streets aren’t in good condition,” Dupuis said, adding that the streets were a recurring theme during the Heart and Soul meetings.
As well as a resort tax, the EDC considered other ways to fund an update of Polson’s streets, including grant funds, which are almost nonexistent; a gas tax; and even homeowner’s associations ponying up money, such as the Mission Bay homeowners did to repave Hawk Drive.
Montana enacted the resort town concept in the 1980s as a way for small towns that have a lot of tourists pay for their infrastructure.
West Yellowstone was the first Montana town to put a resort tax in place.
A community has to meet criteria to be classified a resort town by the Montana Department of Commerce: it must be an incorporated town with less than 5,500 people; must receive the “primary portion” of its income from tourists; and must be designated a resort community by the DOC.
This was a sticking point with many of the meeting attendees.
“It’s apples to oranges,” said Katie Rehberg, who teaches in Polson, but lived in West Yellowstone for a couple of years.
West Yellowstone swells from 1,500 people in the winter to hosting 3.5 million visitors during the summer, with “enough beds to house the town of Bozeman. Polson doesn’t have an attraction. We’re not a destination,” Rehberg added.
Local business owner Mary Frances Casselli agreed with Rehberg.
“I’m sorry, Polson is not a resort town,” Casselli said.
She said her business survives in the wintertime because the locals support it.
However, Polson has been designated a resort community. Once a town is tagged as a resort town, even if the population grows, it retains its resort community label.
The EDC suggested if the resort tax passed that it should have a sunset date of 20 years, be for 3 percent and be charged from April 1 to Sept. 20. Their recommendation was to take 80 percent of the funds collected and use that for streets; 15 percent would go towards property tax relief for City of Polson residents; 3 percent would go to the City for administration and the remaining 3 percent for promoting Polson.
The April to September time frame seemed too long to Carol Jones.
“If you get tourists by mid-June, you are fortunate,” she said.
Since kids have to go back to school and start fall sports, by mid-August the tourists are gone, she added.
“You’re only talking about two and a half months. The rest of us will be paying April through September,” Jones said.
Polson resident Jordan Humble asked what the projections were for revenue.
EDC members said $85,000 was generated in Craig and $2.7 million in West Yellowstone, but the bottom line was they had no idea how much Polson would take in.
“You’re flying by the seat of your pants,” Humble said.
Researching the issue, the EDC compiled their list of items to be taxed from other resort communities. (See sidebar).
Audience members had a lot to say about the list.
“There are many things on here that are ridiculous,” Debbie Barrett said, using gum and toys as examples. “You need to make it better.”
Lulu Stock volunteers at the Country Store, a thrift store in downtown Polson staffed with volunteers from all the churches in town.
“We don’t think we ought to pay this resort tax because we are giving the money back to the community,” she said.
Others commented that Polson would lose a lot of business, since some people might prefer to go out of town to avoid the tax.
“I don’t care if a tourist comes into this town,” Steve Shumate said. “I care about all those people I serve.”
Shumate has operated Steve’s Video for 12 years. During that time, he has rented 57 videos to tourists for a total of $124.
Noticing chips, nuts and granola bars on the list, local business owner Ramona Mahoney said they could not be taxed since they could be purchased with food stamps.
“Has the (Confederated Salish and Kootenai) Tribal Council agreed to this?” Mahoney asked. “If the Tribe does not agree to go along, it will be impossible for us as retailers to collect.”
One of the reasons the 2009 luxury tax voted on in Polson went down was because tribal members would not have had to pay, creating major bookkeeping issues for merchants and venders.
“The elephant in the room is the tribal issue,” Bill Barron said.
Suggestions were made to exempt people with Montana driver’s licenses or even those who are city residents.
“Who’s a city member? Who’s a tribal member? I’m not going to 20-question my customers,” Tali Barron said.
The proposal’s goal is that everybody would pay tax for items on the list. Mayor Heather Knutson and Polson City Manager Mark Shrives have met with Rob McDonald, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Communications Director, according to Louis Cross, EDC member.
Many speakers thanked the EDC members for all their work before commenting.
The council stressed that nothing is set in stone and that they were looking for public input.
“The idea behind it is not to sock it to the local people. Somebody has to pay for our streets,” Dupuis said, adding that a resort tax would bring some fresh tax money from someplace else.
“This is just the starting point,” said Carlisa London, who serves on the EDC.
Resort taxable items
— Movies and live theater
— Gate admissions and concessions
— Autos, trucks, trailers, RVs, etc.
— Conference, convention or event rooms
— Pavilions and park shelters
— Marina boat slips
— Party and tent rentals
— Golf, ski and sports equipment
— Motorcycles, bicycles, ATVs, etc.
— Movie videos and games
— Boats, jet skis, etc.
— Guides and outfitters:
Hunting, fishing, rafting, horse back rides, etc.
— Wedding and event planners
— Catering services
Retail sales of the following:
— Batteries and film
— Cameras and supplies
— Books, including used books
— Curios, decorative boxes and vases
— Cut flowers and floral arrangements
— Artificial flowers, trees and plants
— Finished craft items, including items sold at craft fairs
— Gifts, gift tags, gift boxes and wrapping paper
— Jewelry and artwork
— Magazines and greeting cards
— Makeup and supplies, tanning lotions
— Motorcycles, boats, jet skis, etc.
— Perfume, cologne
— Pictures and picture frames, posters, etc.
— Records, tapes, CDs, videos, DVDs
— Secondhand items, antiques, pawn shop items
— Souvenirs, imprinted and gift items
— Sporting goods including used and consignment
— Tobacco, tobacco products, e-cigarettes and delivery systems
— Food delivery charges, but not tips
— Chips, nuts and seeds, granola bars, jerky
— Foodstuffs intended for immediate human consumption
— Soda pop, gum and candy
— Vending machine items
— Alcoholic beverages sold by the drink or at retail