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Tribune Editorial: County sales tax needed to invest in critical infrastructure

The Kandiyohi County Board will soon make an important decision on our future: How to fund maintenance and improvements of the county’s transportation infrastructure over the next five years.

The time has come for Kandiyohi County to invest in its transportation future and a local option sales tax is the best funding option available.

The Kandiyohi County Board and staff have identified four critical projects to fund through a sales tax:

  • Five miles of County Road 40 west of New London to increase safety and improve driving surface.
  • Three miles of County Road 44 east of Blomkest to upgrade the segment to 10-ton capacity.
  • An overpass on County Road 55 at the south end of the upcoming railroad bypass project west of Willmar, facilitating traffic flow through the corridor and providing access to the Willmar Industrial Park.
  • Reconfiguration of the County Road 40 intersection on the east edge of New London, dovetailing with efforts by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to improve safety and traffic flow at the junction of Minnesota Highways 23 and 9.

The four projects total $13 million. A sales tax would generate $2.7 million annually – it would take about four and a half years to fund the target projects. All four projects meet the criteria of improving safety, promoting economic development or meshing with key projects by other partners such as Minnesota Department of Transportation.

A number of these projects are already scheduled as part of transportation projects with other entities, such as the Willmar wye or the reconfiguration of the County Road 40 intersection in New London. The county has a responsibility to provide matching funding for such projects.

Without the revenue from the proposed sales tax, the four critical projects would still have to be funded. Thus, seven other projects in the county’s Public Works Department’s five-year plan would either be eliminated or delayed beyond the five-year cycle. This, in turn, would also significantly increase the costs of those projects in the future.

There are three options to consider to fund these critical transportation projects:

  • Levy through increased property taxes. This would increase taxes about $95 per year on a $200,000 house or $1,205 on a 425-acre farm. This would be paid only by county property owners.
  • Bonding – which is paid through property taxes. Bonding would result in a levy increase of $39 per year on a $200,000 house or $491 increase on a 425-acre farm. This levy increase would continue for 10 years. This also would be paid only by county property owners.
  • A local option sales tax within the county. Such a sales tax would end when the four identified projects are funded. Such a sales tax would be paid by all individuals and businesses purchasing items within the county. Thus, a good share of sales tax revenue would come from out-of-county businesses and residents.

It is politically unlikely that the state Legislature will increase the gas tax anytime soon in order provide additional transportation funding to counties. There is little political will or public appetite to increase the gas tax at this time.

Thus, county boards can adopt the tax by a majority vote after holding a public hearing on the question. The state has provided this tool to counties to provide need funding for local transportation projects through local decisions.

The Legislature has granted counties the right since 2013 to implement a local option sales tax to fund specific transportation projects. The County Board has been judicious in waiting for the right projects before considering sales tax funding.

The four projects identified by the County Board are unique projects within the county, which improve public safety, assist economic development and open opportunities for both residents and businesses in the county, including the Willmar and New London industrial parks.

The proposed sales tax is an opportunity for Kandiyohi County to fund these four critical and unique transportation projects, while preserving other projects’ funding on the county’s five-year plan and boost economic development.

The West Central Tribune Editorial Board recommends the County Board approve the sales tax proposal. A vote against the proposed sales tax would be short-sighted and not in the best interests of the county and its residents.

This editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune’s Editorial Board of publisher Steve Ammermann and editor Kelly Boldan.