Twenty-five years after the Whitefish voter-approved tourist tax went into effect – and half a decade after voters overwhelmingly approved its 2% to 3% increase to conserve thousands of acres of precious forests surrounding Whitefish Lake – the decision whether or not to renew the once controversial tax will again be on local voters when they vote on November 2.
The idea is that seasonal influxes of visitors put more pressure on streets, sewers and public spaces, and local taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear all the financial responsibility. As Whitefish nears the expiration of its current tourist tax term, city leaders are asking voters for a 20-year extension, without which the community would ultimately have to forgo the option altogether, after crossing the threshold. population designated by the Legislative Assembly of 5,500.
Unlike the first time voters were asked to approve the tourist tax, however, it has now a proven track record in putting money back in the pockets of homeowners in the form of tax relief, as well as contributing tax breaks. tens of millions of dollars for street improvements and other public works projects. The money has also manifested in other tangible forms, including plugging Subaru’s potholes, improving parks, maintaining bike and walking paths, and permanently protecting the water supply. of the city, which he accomplished in 2015 when voters rallied en masse to approve a 1 percentage point resort tax increase to protect a 3,000-acre parcel of land in the Haskill Basin.
This roundtable, local business leaders and community stakeholders are hoping that the renewal application will be an easy sell, especially since the proposed new iteration of the tourist tax includes funding for street maintenance, parks and trails. While the current iteration includes capital improvement projects, it excludes annual maintenance costs. The proposed renewal would also provide 2% of the resort taxes collected, or approximately $ 100,000 each year, to fund the maintenance of the 43 miles and 14 trailheads of the Whitefish Trail network, which are an economic boon as well as an asset. community. However, these trails and trailheads have seen a significant increase in their use.
“This new source of funding would ensure that visitors who enjoy the trails also pay their fair share,” said Margosia Jadkowski of Whitefish Legacy Partners, the nonprofit that oversees the development of the popular trail system.
Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed out that the resort tax does not fund any form of tourism promotion, but rather provides a mechanism by which visitors take part of the financial responsibility for maintaining and improving local recreational facilities that make whitefish unique.
“Paying resort tax means everyone who shoppers here is protecting drinking water, outdoor recreation, city parks, wildlife habitat, trails, and Whitefish’s spectacular backdrop – not to mention the street improvements and discounts to our citizens for property taxes, ”Boyle says. “Supporting our local businesses is the way we pay it forward and that makes the purchases at Whitefish really meaningful. “
By assigning a so-called “tourism tax” to bar and restaurant sales, accommodation, and non-essential retail products, the city was able to offset wear and tear on local infrastructure without overburdening residents at all. the year with mills and samples. According to the city of Whitefish, the resort tax has generated more than $ 14 million in property tax relief, or about $ 1.3 million per year. It has also funded $ 26.6 million in street improvement projects and provided more than $ 2 million in park improvements, including to WAG Dog Park and the area’s tennis and pickleball courts.
Doug Reed, owner of Whitefish Lake Restaurant and chair of the Whitefish Resort Tax Monitoring Committee, said the funding has been a critical asset in maintaining the city’s character. Its renewal will be essential, he said, as the city faces new challenges associated with immense growth, both from seasonal visitors and new full-time residents. An estimated 1.2 million visitors converge on Whitefish each year, according to figures compiled by the University of Montana’s Tourism and Recreation Research Institute, and the resort tax ensures these guests help afford the costs of maintaining and improving the city’s infrastructure, relieving the local population of 7,700 residents of the burden of financing it alone.
“Whitefish is going through a remarkable transformation in terms of the growth and volume of traffic that we are experiencing, so investing in infrastructure is paramount,” Reed said. “And our parks and recreation department has been grossly underfunded over the years, even as we continue to create more recreational green space. The maintenance dollars are just not there for our parks and trails, and this renewal of the resort tax will fix that. “
The proposal submitted to voters in the coming weeks will determine whether to approve the existing 3% allocation for another 20-year term, with the resulting income to begin on February 1, 2025. If renewed, 25% income would be allocated to relief from property tax; 58% for street improvement and public works; 10% for the improvement and maintenance of bicycle paths and parks; 2% maintenance of the city-owned Whitefish Trail system; and 5% to businesses for administration costs.
Long-time residents of whitefish can remember when the specter of a resort tax was a subject of controversy in the mid-1990s, when it was first enacted. Although some residents still complain or choose to shop in Kalispell to circumvent the tax, the city’s adoption of a resort tax has generally been accepted as positive, said Vanessa Gailey, co-owner of Glacier Cyclery. and Nordic in downtown Whitefish.
“Most visitors don’t notice it because they’re so used to paying taxes on goods and services elsewhere,” Gailey said, referring to Montana’s rarefied status as one of the five states without sales tax. statewide, alongside Alaska, New Hampshire, Delaware and Oregon. “To the few who question it, we explain that we are a small resort near Glacier National Park and that we receive millions of visitors every year. So to maintain our downtown streets, sidewalks and recreational facilities, we have a 3% tax. As soon as I put it that way, most of our clients are happy to contribute. “
Likewise, Hidden Moose Lodge owner Kent Taylor said his guests never question the addition of a 3% tax.
“We’ve been open for 26 years and our guests don’t even notice the resort tax,” Taylor said. “If anything, they’re shocked, we don’t have a statewide sales tax. But do you know what our guests would notice? Potholes. Sidewalks in poor condition. And that’s the sort of thing that the tourist tax helps to sort out.
Plus, since many of Gailey’s customers are avid bike or ski enthusiasts keen to hit the trails, the inclusion of trail-specific maintenance dollars in the resort tax renewal should make it an even easier sale. .
“The trails and recreational access are a big draw and a lot of businesses are benefiting from it, including us,” said Gailey. “Sometimes the city tax cost us a bike sale to someone who knows they can go to Kalispell and get around the 3% tax. But the question is, aren’t we even better at it? I think so.”