As a town council member, business owner, Yellowstone Park guide and most importantly, a citizen of West Yellowstone, I have been fortunate to experience and understand the importance of our resort tax from a variety of perspectives over the last 16 years.
The Town of West Yellowstone put the resort tax option on the ballot in November of 1985 and the option was approved for 20 years. With millions of visitors entering Montana and Yellowstone National Park via West Yellowstone — and impacting public services and infrastructure — the positive outcome gained from the voters’ approval cannot be overstated.
When it came time to renew West Yellowstone’s resort tax, 88 percent of residents voted in favor of extending it. But the stresses of growth continue in the state’s fastest-growing resort destinations.
West Yellowstone and the nine other Montana resort tax communities now find themselves in a position of increased impact that current collections are unable to match. Rising visitation is stressing water and sewer systems, streets and other public services to the breaking point. Yellowstone National Park endured the arrival of 4.1 million visitors this past year. That’s around 600,000 more than in 2014.
In rural Montana towns popular with tourists, local business owners benefit from the state’s appeal to the outside world. But in order for Montana’s resort destinations to grow into sustainable communities, each one needs access to every available tool in the town-building toolbox. From the trout-fishing Mecca of Craig to the cradle of Montana history — Virginia City — this state’s resort towns are buckling under the stress of increased visitation and population growth.
In Cooke City, visitation has spiked by 37 percent over the past five years and that’s stressed the local infrastructure to the point residents are reaching out to Sen. Steve Daines and other state leaders asking for help providing basic sanitation.
For my community, reality hit in 2016, when West Yellowstone placed a moratorium on new water connections. In order to sustain current impact while allowing for incremental growth vital to economic development, West Yellowstone will need to repair and replace current infrastructure including putting in place a long-term plan to improve waste water treatment.
Senate Bill 241, which is currently making its way through the Montana Legislature, will give the electorate of West Yellowstone the opportunity to better address this critical need. It would permit our town and the state’s other resort tax communities to increase by 1 percent what they collect from the throngs of tourists.
SB 241 does not mandate any additional resort tax, nor does it raise property taxes or place any additional financial burden on government. It simply empowers resort town locals to decide how they want to deal with what is certain to be a busy and challenging future. With SB 241 on the books, West Yellowstone and other resort towns will be able to come together and hold a local vote on any future resort tax increase.
So to be clear, this isn’t a tax hike. It’s a chance for Montana to support small towns with big infrastructure challenges brought on by the state’s second largest industry — tourism.
Montanans want visitors to continue to come and experience our scenic vistas and world-class hospitality. SB 241 will be an opportunity to improve upon and provide the best possible services while mitigating the cost to local citizens and maintaining our stellar reputation worldwide as the Big Sky State.
Chris Burke is a West Yellowstone town councilman and owner of Morning Glory Coffee and Tea.