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Kandiyohi County picks road projects for potential sales tax funding

Briana Sanchez / Tribune file photo The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday went through an in-depth analysis of the county’s long-term transportation needs, funding sources and options for filling an unfunded gap.

WILLMAR—Kandiyohi County officials have identified eight projects, totaling nearly $26 million, as candidates for funding via a local option sales tax under consideration by the County Board.

During a work session Tuesday, the County Board of Commissioners also went through an in-depth analysis of the county's long-term transportation needs, funding sources and options for filling an unfunded gap.

Although the board has yet to decide whether to pursue a local option sales tax, the consensus Tuesday was that the unmet needs for road and safety improvements can't continue to go unaddressed.

"These roads are going to get worse and it's going to cost more to fix them," said Commissioner Jim Butterfield.

The County Board has eyed the possibility of a local sales tax for the past three years.

A provision by the Minnesota Legislature that went into effect in 2013 allows counties the option of imposing a local sales tax of up to half a cent for specifically designated transportation projects. County boards can adopt the tax by a majority vote after holding a public hearing on the question.

For Kandiyohi County, a half-cent sales tax would generate an estimated $2.7 million a year.

From 2010 through 2014 the county spent $5 million to $6 million a year on road improvements. In 2015 and 2016, spending was ramped up to about $8 million a year.

Mel Odens, director of Kandiyohi County Public Works, said the county tries to leverage every source of funding available for local roads.

About $2.1 million of property tax levy dollars are spent each year on improving the county highway system, he said. A wheelage tax earmarked for gravel roads and jurisdictional realignment projects brings in another $400,000 a year, he said.

Kandiyohi County also taps into state and federal funds, bridge bonding money and even private-sector partnerships to meet ongoing needs, Odens said. "We're trying to maximize or leverage the dollars. I think it's been working."

But it still isn't enough, particularly for needs that lack a direct or sustainable source of funding—gravel roads, bridges, and the 75 miles of farm-to-market county roads that are older than 50 years, Odens said. "In order to have sustainable construction, you need sustainable funding."

The eight projects tentatively identified for potential sales tax funding share one or more factors: They address key safety needs, promote economic development or fall into a window of opportunity with larger state projects.

On the list:

• The intersection of County Road 40 at Minnesota Highways 23 and 9 on the east edge of New London.

• An overpass on County Road 55 at the south end of the pending railroad bypass project on the west edge of Willmar.

• Five miles of County Road 40 south of Sunburg.

• Two miles of County Road 40 northeast of Diamond Lake.

• Two and a half miles of County Road 39, also known as Tri-County Road, north of Atwater.

• Six miles of County Road 4 north of Lake Lillian.

• The intersection of County Roads 4 and 20 north of Lake Lillian.

• Three miles of County Road 44 east of Blomkest.

The eight projects total an estimated $25.8 million.

The county's next step is to trim the list to three or four projects with a collective cost of $10 million to $15 million and present it to the County Board for more discussion in early October.

Although the decision to adopt a local sales tax doesn't require a referendum, it will still be important to sell the concept to the public, said Commissioner Steve Ahmann.

"I'm concerned about the palatability of this," he said. "We're going to have to be accountable for it."

An informal survey at the Kandiyohi County Fair last month by Commissioner Rollie Nissen found that the majority of constituents—104 out of 112—supported the sales tax once the pros and cons were explained to them.

A recent survey by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce showed less certainty. Forty percent opposed a sales tax, 51.6 percent supported it and the remaining 8 to 9 percent wanted to see other mechanisms for transportation funding.

Ken Warner, president of the Chamber, said additional feedback indicated a desire for more public education on the issue. For some respondents, their support also hinged on which projects are designated for sales tax funds.

"That's going to be the tough call on this," he said.

Regardless of the outcome of the sales tax question, it's critical for the County Board to have a vision and strategy for its highway system, said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

"We really are doing long-term planning. That is so valuable for where we want to go," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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