Yellowstone Adventures sign

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Tuesday is election day, which means big issues for each community are going on ballots across Montana. In West Yellowstone, that issue is adding a second resort tax to help pay for major infrastructure needs.

The additional 1% tax may seem like an insignificant amount when you throw it on top of a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone, but West Yellowstone officials say it would go a long way to solve a sudden and unexpected problem: waste and water systems that are far past their expiration date. It's a problem so bad, the town has been forced to slow its growth.

On average, the town of West Yellowstone brings in $4 million every year from its current 3% resort tax, which only taxes "luxury" items, such as outdoor equipment rentals, hotel stays, or drinks from a coffee shop.

For a town of roughly 1,300, $4 million goes a long way.

When the 3% resort tax was put in place in the late 1980s, it was a blessing; bringing West Yellowstone into the future with its first fire hydrants, town-paved roads, curbs, and gutters.

Brad Schmier owns outdoor rental company Yellowstone Adventures in West Yellowstone, and he's also the town's current mayor. Schmier's business runs off tourists, and the resort tax they've brought with them.

But a major problem presented itself in town recently, when town council members learned that a majority of the town's infrastructure, such as sewer lines, were installed as far back as 40 years ago and are now far past their prime.

"We're a small community, and the tax base of the small community," Schmier explains, "it's not large enough to pay for all those things."

The lagoon-style wastewater treatment plant and the pipes leading to it are already nearly at capacity, which has essentially stopped the town's growth.

Schmier says they've had to deny new hotels from being built because their current system simply wouldn't be able to handle the additional waste new businesses would bring with them.

Estimates say it'll take $30 million to upgrade water and sewer lines and to build a new and improved wastewater treatment facility.

"We've been lucky, we haven't had any real issues," says Schmier. "We've got to fix these things."

But how far is the seven cents from a tourist's cup of coffee going to go?

With more than 615,000 visitors coming through West Yellowstone just last year, those pennies add up.

This year, the town launched a successful campaign in Helena to approve an additional 1% resort tax that would go on top of the 3% resort tax (the current statewide maximum) that small tourist towns in Montana rely on.

But it could all be for nothing if the town's citizens reject the measure on Tuesday.

As for the tourists' response? Schmier doesn't think it will be a problem.

"Majority of the people that we interface with - when they ask what the tax is and we tell them 3%, majority of them are like, 'Is that all?'"

Schmier adds that the water treatment plant is a non-negotiable expense for the town at this point, and the money will have to come from somewhere to make it a reality.

The additional 1% tax, if passed, could eventually expire once the wastewater treatment plant and the related infrastructure needs are paid for, according to Schmier.

The ballot measure West Yellowstone residents will see on Tuesday would only put those taxes in place for the next 20 years.

The current 3% resort tax - an extension for the next 20 years - is also on Tuesday's ballot.

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