C-Falls resort tax would buffer tourist impact

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Columbia Falls residents face a big decision this spring as the city prepares to ask voters to support a 3% resort tax largely to help offset the growing costs of police and emergency services.

There’s no doubt taxation is a hot-button issue. We don’t know of many people who get excited about paying more for goods and services. But in this case, support of Columbia Falls’ proposed resort tax is a no-brainer because it’s a way of capturing a large percentage of tax revenue from tourists and others who drive on the city’s roads and use its services.

Last year, as the state Department of Commerce was completing its eligibility study to determine if Columbia Falls qualifies as a resort community, it found overwhelming evidence of tourist impact. Roughly 1.2 million vehicles drive through Columbia Falls on their way to Glacier National Park during the summer months — that’s close to two-thirds of all traffic entering the park’s west entrance.

Columbia Falls accurately calls itself the “Gateway to Glacier National Park.”

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart recently pointed out the city budget doesn’t have the money to staff the fire department as it should be. City leaders estimate the resort tax would bring in some $450,000 the first year, which would go a long way in beefing up fire and police department staffs.

The other option is a public safety levy that would cost each city property owner more than $200 a year. We don’t think Columbia Falls residents alone should have to bear the increasing costs of road repair and emergency services. As the proposal currently stands, 55% of the revenue would go to public safety, 25% to property tax rebates, 14% to public infrastructure, 5% to businesses to cover collection costs and 1% to the city to administer the tax.

City leaders have had long discussions about what to tax, and what not to tax, and have come up with a fairly typical resort tax plan that assesses three pennies on the dollar for lodging facilities, some recreational activities and rentals, restaurant and bar food and drink, and various retail goods, often deemed “luxury” items, such as jewelry, artwork and antiques.

We’ve heard from a few naysayers who declare they won’t be eating or drinking or shopping in Columbia Falls if they have to pay the resort tax. Whitefish had those same naysayers 25 years ago as it was fine-tuning its 2% tax proposal. Business owners were fearful that locals and tourists wouldn’t shop in Whitefish because of the tax.

Those fears were simply all for naught. People did continue to shop, eat and drink and stay in Whitefish, and as of June 30, 2019, Whitefish had taken in $42.3 million that has been used to rebuild many streets, enhance parks and provide nice rebates to property owners. And don’t forget Whitefish voters in 2016 approved a 1% increase in the tax, with 75% of collections going to the Haskill Basin conservation easement to protect Whitefish’s water supply, and 25% toward property tax rebates.

If you feel strongly one way or the other about Columbia Falls’ 3% proposal, the City Council is holding a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, at City Hall. Now’s the time to speak up.

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