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A lot of talk, no decisions on Willmar sales tax projects

The city council talked about potential projects at the Willmar Civic Center which could be funded by a local option sales tax. Projects included a new refrigeration system for the ice sheets and a third sheet of ice. (Shelby Lindrud / Tribune)

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members discuss potential projects of regional significance to be funded by a local option sales tax planned to go before voters Nov. 8.

City staff provided a draft ballot question Monday when the entire council met as the Finance Committee.

“That is to guide you. It gives you the verbiage,” City Administrator Larry Kruse said.

The committee took no action on the draft language. It stated that money raised from the sales tax would go toward projects at the Willmar Civic Center, Robbins Island and Swansson Field and a new community center.

The City Council must approve a ballot question at least 90 days before the general election, which would be by the Aug. 1 council meeting.

“The clock is moving,” said Councilman Denis Anderson, who led the discussion as chairman of the Finance Committee.

Kruse and staff presented a plan with $19,062,000 worth of projects at the Civic Center, Swansson Field and Robbins Island plus a new community center. The projects included refrigeration replacement for the ice at the Civic Center; new roads, trails and parking lots at Robbins Island; upgrades to the lighting at Swansson Field; along with a brand new community center.

“Staff is very interested in getting direction,” Kruse said.

Councilwoman Audrey Nelsen said she was concerned about how many capital improvement and maintenance projects, which are part of the five-year capital improvement plan, were listed as potential sales tax projects.

“We shouldn’t be just doing maintenance with the local option sales tax. It should be used to enhance the facilities,” Nelsen said.

Steve Okins, city finance director, said just because a project is listed in the capital improvement plan does not mean it is funded. He used the example of the need for the new refrigeration system at the Civic Center, which is estimated to cost over $2 million. To raise enough property taxes to pay for that one project, the tax levy would need to be raised 50 percent, Okins said.  

A 10 percent levy increase would add only $450,000 annually, according to a report released by the city at the committee meeting. The potential half-percent sales tax would raise about $2.2 million annually or $23 million over 10 years.

Regarding the community center, there was concern about just what a new community center would look like.

“We have to deal with the community center, period. The investment has to be made in the building, ASAP,” Councilman Shawn Mueske said.

There was talk about combining the community center with the Civic Center, moving WRAC-8 into the community center project and the importance of the building being a center for multigenerational use.

“I don’t want it to be a fieldhouse,” Councilman Ron Christianson said. Christianson, who has said he does not support a local option sales tax, said the public will need more information on the community center project before they will approve giving money to it. Other council members agreed with his sentiment.

“It’s our responsibility to present the best project,” Councilman Andrew Plowman said.

When discussing the Civic Center, the sport of curling came up. Currently, a local curling club uses the ice at the Blue Line Arena at the Civic Center and it is the club’s wish to have a dedicated facility for its use.

“I think it is very important we do something for the curling community. That needs to be part of that complex out there,” Anderson said. There has been previous discussion about adding a third sheet of ice at the Civic Center.

The discussion will continue at the end of the upcoming City Council meeting Monday night.

“I think we need more information, more time,” Nelsen said.

Staff was directed to see what kind of projects would be possible if $3 million was dedicated to Robbins Island, $3 million to the Civic Center and $2 million to Swansson Field.

At the meeting coming up Monday, the council will also take up a sales tax request from Willmar Downtown Development. A proposal from the organization’s board of directors requests that a portion of the sales tax be used to further develop the Downtown Plan, including reconstructing Block 50 with underground parking, office space for the city and space for retail and workforce housing.

“We owe it to them to at least discuss it,” Anderson said.

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