Town commission decides to put resort tax before voters

The Ennis town commissioners voted unanimously at special meeting Tuesday night to put an Ennis resort tax before town voters, despite unified opposition to the move from citizens attending the meeting.

“I really think this is bad timing,” said Sheri Shows, owner of the Fan Mountain Inn in Ennis. “With the way the economy is right now, we’re just fighting to get people to Ennis.”

The special meeting Tuesday was only to decide whether or not the resort tax should go on a special ballot, said Ennis mayor, John Clark. The specifics of the resort tax ordinance, such as what items are taxed, when it applies and the specifics of how the money generated will be spent are all items to be discussed at future public meetings.

Ennis was designated a resort community in 1997, since then the resort tax issue has been voted on once, in 1998, and was defeated.

The current resort tax discussion began back in 2008, when Ennis secured a grant to hire a consultant to walk the community through the process of deciding on a resort tax. That grant came from the Montana Department of Commerce and was for economic development. The grant was a $10,000 cost share grant that Ennis had to match. Out of the $20,000 pot of money, $15,000 is allocated for the consultant. In 2009, the town hired Helena attorney and Montana resort tax expert, Mona Jamison. According to town officials, the money from the state will cover all of Jamison’s fees.

The grant is also being used to upgrade the town’s subdivision regulations and to look into affordable housing resources.

Though the meeting was attended by more than 30 people who seemed to be largely against the tax, the town commission also had to consider the will of citizens who didn’t show up for the meeting, said commissioner Pat Clancey.

“It’s difficult to sit here in front of a bunch of people opposed to something and say I think we should take the next step,” Clancey said. “I think we should continue the process.”

A couple of years ago, the commission sent a survey around to town residents asking them whether or not they wanted their streets paved and if they would support some sort of levy to get the work done, Clark said. Most of the responders to the survey said they’d like another option besides a mill levy.

But a resort tax doesn’t make sense for Ennis and the commission should think about the economic realities businesses in town are facing, said Rob Gallentine, owner of Shedhorn Sports.

If the resort tax passed, Gallentine couldn’t afford to keep his store in Ennis, he said. The margins on selling firearms, optics and sporting goods are just too small, especially when he’s trying to compete with bigger stores in the region.

“There’s got to be other alternative ways to raise more money … without affecting our community,” Gallentine said.

Town commissioner John Bancroft is opposed to the resort tax. However, he proposed the idea that a mill levy be on the ballot along with the resort tax, so people have another option if they want money raised for things like street paving and sidewalk construction.

The problem facing Ennis is funding infrastructure improvements and maintenance, Bancroft said. If people want things like paved streets, graded roads and sidewalks then maybe they should have another option besides a resort tax.

“Put it on the ballot and give the people a choice between a resort tax and a mill levy, which would you like to pay,” he said.

The commissioners voted to have the election on the resort tax “on or about” March 1, 2011. The next step in the process is for Jamison to start drafting the ordinance based on the handful of public meetings she held over the past eight months. It wasn’t clear whether or not she would hold more public meetings before handing a draft of the ordinance to the commissioners.

Once the commissioners have a draft of the ordinance, they have to hold two readings of the ordinance before passing it. Under state law, the ordinance must be passed prior to the vote on the tax. The passage of the ordinance will be contingent on voter approval.

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