WILLMAR — The transit sales tax, approved by the Kandiyohi County Board and implemented in 2018, was supposed to be active only for four and half years, enough time to raise $13 million for four specific transportation projects.
However, as state transportation funding continues to fail to meet the needs of Kandiyohi County, county Public Works Director Mel Odens raised the possibility of extending the 0.5 percent sales tax increase to help fund a long list of transportation projects over the next several years. Without the extension, the county could see a drastic reduction in transportation funding starting in 2025, well below the amount needed to even maintain what the county has.
"That is the reality," Odens said at the Kandiyohi County Board Road and Bridge meeting Aug. 11.
The commissioners had only the most preliminary discussion about the sales tax during the meeting, though most agreed the county will probably have to do something.
"The Legislature continues to fail in getting sustainable transportation funding done, forcing us and other counties to do what we are talking about," said Commissioner Roger Imdieke.
Commissioners said when they first approved the sales tax, they heard from constituents who commented that once the tax was approved, it would never go away.
"It makes me nervous to be even talking about it," Imdieke said, though he said he does not have any answers on what the county could do instead. "If we want to maintain our roads, we have to do what we have to do."
What the county cannot do is wait for a lifeboat from the state.
"If we are always going to hope someone else is going to solve it, it is not going to happen," said Commissioner Harlan Madsen. "We have to do something on the local level."
The projects that Odens envisions would be funded by an extended sales tax are roads that are highly used and need work, but haven't risen to the priority level to be put on the annual project list.
"We can just never get there," Odens said.
Projects include reconstruction of County Road 7 from state Highway 40 to U.S. Highway 12 and overlay of County Road 7 from Highway 12 to state Highway 9 in Sunburg; overlay of County Road 24 and County Road 41 in Willmar; reconstruction of County Road 20 between County Road 8 and County Road 2; and overlay of County Road 2 between Country Road 8 and Highway 12. Odens said those projects are roads that are highly traveled and important to commercial traffic.
With a finite amount of money each year, Odens has to make difficult decisions every year on which roads make the short- and long-term plan for improvement projects. Kandiyohi County wants to keep its road network in good shape, but there isn't enough money to do everything that is needed.
"The optics don't look good when you don't maintain them, but which road is the one you maintain, because they are all important," Odens said.
What the County Board decides to do regarding the sales tax extension is still unknown, but the overall consensus of the board was a decision would be needed and soon, so plans could be made for potential projects.
"We are a regional center here and infrastructure is so important to our businesses and for the perception of people coming here," said Commissioner Corky Berg. "We have to maintain it."