Public hearings net little input on local option sales tax for transportation

Meanwhile, another six miles of roads are added to that list each year, creating quite a backlog unless and until more money is targeted to transportation.

On Tuesday, commissioners hosted a public hearing during which Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder explained the transportation needs, lack of funding and a proposal to initiate a local option sales tax to generate needed revenue. To maximize participation, the hearing was scheduled as part of their 9 a.m. board meeting, and then reconvened at 7 that evening.

Of the two sessions — which took place at the Worthington Event Center to accommodate more people while social distancing — only one member of the public attended. The evening session, in which there was no public input, ended with commissioners Matt Widboom and Gene Metz encouraging fellow board members to go out on their own to seek comment.

Commissioners have discussed the potential to institute a half-cent sales tax for several months, but have yet to make a decision. The required public hearings were hoped to give commissioners some direction. Now, they’ll bring the topic back to a work session for additional discussion, with any action to take place during a regularly scheduled board meeting.

The local option sales tax for transportation, authorized by the Minnesota Legislature in 2013 as a way for counties to make up for funding shortages, would be added to any purchases within Nobles County that are already taxed. Therefore, food and clothing purchases would remain exempt. Also exempt from the special tax are licensed motor vehicle sales.

Schnieder said implementing a half-cent sales tax would generate an estimated $900,000 per year for transportation projects. This is in addition to nearly $4.8 million in annual state aid, $220,000 in yearly wheelage tax revenue and $200,000 generated through property taxes by the county levy. All together, it adds up to slightly more than $6.1 million per year.

With today’s cost of approximately $1 million per mile to regrade and pave a roadway, the county could potentially replace six miles of paved road per year. Also, 15.4 miles of road rehabilitation is needed each year to maintain the system, Schnieder said. Falling behind in road reconstruction will lead to more maintenance, like patching.

Aside from the local option sales tax option, Schnieder said the county has alternatives. It could bond for the amount of money needed and repay it over a series of years, or it could raise the local levy amount dedicated to transportation, which could result in property tax increases.

The creation of a local option sales tax for transportation requires counties to first identify projects they would fund with the money the tax generates.

Schnieder outlined three projects he placed in top priority:

  • Nobles County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 4 from CSAH 5 TO CSAH 21 (5 miles), near Round Lake;

  • CSAH 6, from Rock County to Minnesota 91 (2 miles) near Ellsworth; and

  • CSAH 11, from CSAH 6 to Minnesota 91 (2 miles) near Ellsworth.

Ten additional projects were also identified:

  • CSAH 15, from CSAH 16 to North County Line (6.2 miles);

  • CSAH 13, from Interstate 90 to CSAH 25 (8.4 miles);

  • CSAH 4, from Minnesota 60 to CSAH 5 (6 miles);

  • CSAH 15, from CSAH 35 to CSAH 16 (9 miles);

  • CSAH 15, from Iowa to CSAH 35 (9 miles);

  • CSAH 16, from Rock County to Lismore (5.5 miles);

  • CSAH 16 from Lismore to Highway 91 (.5 mile);

  • Nobles County 54, from CSAH 15 to CSAH 13 (4 miles)

  • Nobles County 60, from CSAH 35 to CSAH 14 (5 miles)

  • Nobles County 55 and park roads from Fury’s Island Park to CSAH 18 (4.3 miles)

Schnieder said the projects on the list include roads with narrow shoulders, steep slopes and poor alignment. Implementing a local option sales tax, while only generating an estimated $900,000 per year, would help with scheduling road projects as money permits.

Lismore resident Frank Wieneke attended the morning’s public hearing, and noted his surprise that there weren’t more people in attendance.

“I don’t understand how we can get so far behind in this. I understand money is an issue,” Wieneke said.

Wieneke then noted that wind turbines are bringing in production tax revenue, and some of the early homes approved for five-year tax abatement program should start generating money for the county.

“When we do my business, we set a budget every year and spend what we have coming in,” he said. “If the highway department is critical, maybe some of these other things need to be on hold.”

“We’re just so far behind you don’t know where to start and how to catch up — we don’t know if we can,” replied Metz. “We don’t know if the state is going to come through or if we’re going to get more program aid. This is an option we’ve got and we’re trying to explore.”

Metz noted the production tax revenues from wind turbines are set aside for infrastructure projects, and that it’s not easy when there’s so much work that needs to be done.

Commissioner Donald Linssen said that during his eight years on the board, every time the county needed to make a budget cut, one of the first cuts was to the county highway department.

“We’re at a point where we either have to do something and move forward or start giving up some of these hard-surfaced roads,” Linssen said. “The money isn’t there. We’ve been Band-Aiding for a long time. Now we’re at a turning point where we need to do something or we’re going to be in big trouble.

“The times right now with COVID and some really difficult times for people, but things keep going also,” he added.

Linssen said if the county does enact a local option sales tax, he wants it to have a sunset date and not just go on forever.

Schnieder pointed out that a lot of the projects he identified are on the CSAH system, which is generally funded through state aid that comes from license fees and fuel tax dollars.

“Those haven’t increased in many, many years — at least the last decade or so,” he added. “An increase in state funding would certainly alleviate the need for the county board to look at other options to be able to do this.”

“Rather than state lawmakers doing the planning, they give us the ability to tax — they push it down to us and force us to make these kinds of decisions,” Widboom said. Adding up the cost for all of the projects Schnieder outlined, it amounts to more than $63 million, he added.

Widboom asked if the county could bond to do some of the projects on the list, which would capitalize on the current low interest rates and save on construction costs that seem to go up year after year.

Schnieder said bonding could be used to pay off principal, but he didn’t know if it could pay the interest as well.

“When you start the bond process, you have to have a contract ready to go. It’s a very short time frame to do a lot of projects,” he said. “Bonding might work for certain parts or certain projects.”

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