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Willmar Chamber hears local option sales tax pitch

Tribune file photo The Willmar Area Chamber of Commerce heard a presentation this week on the local option sales tax that will be on the ballot in November. Revenue from the 0.5 percent tax would be used to fund six projects, including a recreation center, athletic fields and a new community center.

WILLMAR — Invest in Willmar, the community-led organization promoting the local option sales tax on the ballot in November, presented its vision to the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors and public policy committee Tuesday morning. The chamber, made up of area businesses, will eventually announce whether it supports the ballot measure.

"There have been times we've supported them, there have been times we've been against them," Chamber president Ken Warner said.

While a majority of the business owners in the chamber do not live in the city of Willmar and can't vote on the measure, Warner said, Chamber leadership wants to make sure their voices are heard.

"When you get to vote through this kind of process, a different story gets told," Warner said.

However, even if the chamber ultimately decides not to support the local option sales tax in November, if the city's voters approve it, the chamber will support it when called upon.

"At the end of the day, when it goes to St. Paul and the city administrator asks for a letter of support from the chamber, we give the letter of support," Warner said.

The 2018 local option sales tax proposal, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot following the Willmar City Council's approval of the question earlier this month, would add one half of a percent to Willmar's sales tax, raising it to 7.875 percent. The additional tax would be collected for 13 years and raise an estimated $30 million.

"Thirteen years is a hard stop," Mayor Marv Calvin said.

The revenue raised would go toward six projects — $10 million to a recreation center/auditorium at the Willmar Civic Center, $6 million for recreation fields, $3 million toward Robbins Island Regional Park, $2 million for upgrades at Swansson Field Complex, $7 million for stormwater improvements and $2 million for a new community center.

"We realized there is a bigger need in this community. I stress the word need, it's not a want, it is a need for additional recreational facilities," said Anthony Amon, co-founder of Invest in Willmar.

The sales tax is conservatively estimated to bring in $2.4 million per year, though it could be as high at $2.7 million or $2.8 million. The tax will be added to all eligible purchases within the city limits. A $20 excise tax will be added to the purchase of all vehicles. Items like clothing, groceries, health care, prescriptions and fuel are not subject to the tax.

According to Invest in Willmar, if the new sales tax is approved, it would add 50 cents to a $100 purchase, $5 to a $1,000 purchase and $50 to a $10,000 purchase.

Unlike property taxes, which are paid only by those who own property in the city, a local option sales tax would affect anyone buying goods or services in Willmar, no matter where they live. Several regional centers and cities in the area already have a local option sales tax including New Ulm, New London, Spicer and Marshall.

"Let's collect a little bit for people coming from the Twin Cities, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota for hockey tournaments, baseball tournaments or fishing openers," Matt Dawson, Invest in Willmar co-founder, said.

The Invest in Willmar group sees the opportunities of a local option sales tax as a way to continuing to grow Willmar and bring new families and businesses to the city.

"It is critical we are an anchor, a regional center, and we continue to invest in the community," Dawson said. "This vote is more than a soccer field. It is about our kids, our seniors, it is about wanting to get people back into Willmar."

If passed, the 2018 local option sales tax would be the third successful one. The first, in 1998, funded the Willmar Public Library, while the second, in 2006 funded a variety of projects from the Civic Center/Blue Line Arena connection to the Willmar Industrial Park redevelopment.

A $10 million sales tax question failed in 2016.

"We are a better community because the ones that did pass, did pass," State Rep. Dave Baker said.

If voters approve the sales tax, it will go to the state Legislature for final approval. Baker said he has never heard of a voter-approved sales tax being defeated by the Legislature.

"We want to make sure we keep an eye on what are all the communities are doing," Baker said.