WILLMAR — In 2017, the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners approved a five-year local option sales tax to fund four road improvement projects covering 10 miles of road and one bridge at a cost of $14 million. Revenue collection began in 2018 and is set to expire in 2022.

Mel Odens, Kandiyohi County Public Works director, is hoping the County Board will approve extending the half-cent sales tax for another seven years.

"The request is seven years of a sales tax, 11 projects, 40 miles of road, two bridges and $22 million," Odens said. "We would do four times the miles for less than half the price."

Kandiyohi County Public Works director Mel Odens, shown in a January 2018 file photo, requested Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, that the Kandiyohi County Board consider extending the half-cent sales tax in the county to fund transportation projects. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
Kandiyohi County Public Works director Mel Odens, shown in a January 2018 file photo, requested Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, that the Kandiyohi County Board consider extending the half-cent sales tax in the county to fund transportation projects. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

The County Board approved setting a public hearing on the proposed extension at 10 a.m. Nov. 16 in the board room at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building.

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"To gather public input, still keep an open mind and hear what the public has to say as well," said Commissioner Corky Berg.

Odens said he feels the sales tax has been a good option for the county to fund needed transportation upgrades and has been a benefit to the public.

"It seems like a good tool," Odens said. "Our road network needs it."

The projects being considered for the extended sales tax include improvements along Kandiyohi County Road 7 from Sunburg to Minnesota Highway 40; County Road 27 from County Road 7 to County Road 5; the County Road 1 bridge and County Road 3 near Raymond; and County Road 10/39, also known as the Tri-County Road. Odens also said the county would focus significantly on Willmar.

"We would like to address the county roads in the city of Willmar," Odens said, adding that he knows the city is also looking at ways to improve its roads.

A map showing both the Kandiyohi County transit projects funded by the current sales tax (in blue) as well as the proposed projects if the tax is extended (in red). Contributed / Kandiyohi County Public Works
A map showing both the Kandiyohi County transit projects funded by the current sales tax (in blue) as well as the proposed projects if the tax is extended (in red). Contributed / Kandiyohi County Public Works

While no one loves paying more in taxes, a sales tax means anyone who makes a taxable purchase in Kandiyohi County would pay the tax, not just the county property owners.

"This is $0.50 on $100. And the road you came to town on to do business will be in good shape for years to come," said Commissioner Rollie Nissen. "It does help keep the roads in the kind of shape we need."

Every year, Kandiyohi County receives money from the federal government, the state, the property tax levy and the wheelage tax to do a variety of road improvements and maintenance. However, transportation funding has been a difficulty for decades and the local option sales tax helped close funding gaps.

"We don't want the public to think we haven't looked at other options for funds," Odens said.

Those other funding sources can have rules attached to them, such as a requirement that they only be used for certain roads or projects. For example, even if the federal infrastructure bill is passed and additional funding finds its way to Kandiyohi County, it would only be used for federal roads.

"Federal money has a lot of strings," Odens said.

If the current sales tax is allowed to expire, the county would see a significant drop in available funds to do county road updates, Odens said. Many of the 11 proposed projects, even those that are eligible for other funding sources, would probably have to be postponed or dropped altogether because the money just wouldn't be there.

"This is a huge gap of non-funded roads," Odens said.

Having the funds to maintain the roads in the end will save the county money, as maintenance projects are usually cheaper than complete rebuilds.

"If you let a road go to a reconstruction state, it is going to cost you four times what it would to just keep it up" by doing an overlay project, Odens said. "It pays to (fund) upkeep."