Wright County preparing for hearing on local sales tax

By John Holler

Contributing Writer

The March 7 meeting of the Wright County Board ended very shortly after it began, as there were only a pair of housecleaning items. But, it may be the quiet before the storm in the coming weeks.

On the March 14 agenda, there will be discussion to set a public hearing to impose a half-cent sales to cover road and bridge projects. The county has looked to avoid adding on a tax, but, with the State of Minnesota holding the line on state aid funding for road and bridge projects, it has allowed counties to impose their own sales taxes, most of which have added a half-cent tax. The state sales tax of 6.875 percent. The proposed county tax would raise Wright County sales tax collected to 7.375 percent.

Commissioner Darek Vetsch said that he is looking forward to the opportunity for the discussion to get public input because he expects that, once explained, more residents would favor a sales tax as opposed to the alternative — raising the needed road and bridge money through property tax levy increases.

“I just want to get transparency on this with the public because we need public input,” Vetsch said. “I want to get the pros and cons out there so people know why we’re looking at it. The state isn’t giving us any additional money for road projects and has said this is your way to generate your own funds and allocate the money for road projects. We’ve been left to do a sales tax, make additions to the levy or not doing projects.”

Doing nothing isn’t a realistic option and the need continues to grow. Commissioner Mike Potter estimated that Wright County needs $12 million a year simply to maintain its current road system, much less making improvements to the road and bridge system. The county is getting approximately $6 million a year in state aid funding, which barely covers half the cost the county needs to covers its annual cost.

The local option sales tax being proposed would be earmarked exclusively to use for road and bridge projects ­ of which there are several waiting in the wings.

“Statutorily, that half-cent tax collected could only be used for road and bridge projects,” Potter said. “We’ve identified $78 million in projects that are on the shelf going out in the future that could be used with this money. We’re going with a conservative number saying that we would generate between $5-6 million a year.”

The advantage to imposing a local half-cent sales tax, Potter theorized, is that given its proximity to the Twin Cities, many of the people who would be purchasing items subject to sales tax would be people outside the county – a figure he believes would be significant.

“The data I’ve seen discussed is that between 30 and 50 percent of the tax that would be collected would be derived from people who don’t live in Wright County,” Potter said. “If we just raised property taxes in the county, it would all be on our residents. To me, the question is do we want to pay 100 percent of the taxes to get road projects done or have other people from outside the county share in that cost?”

Wright County would be far from alone if a local option sales tax was approved. A total of 26 counties already have a county-based tax in place, including 14 that have signed up since Jan. 1, 2016. Three years ago when the state capped funding for counties to fund road projects, counties were legislatively given the option of raising their own funds. Potter said Wright County has spent all of its resources simply to keep up with needed repairs and maintenance of the system and that the sales tax is their only realistic option to making headway on keeping the county’s road system ahead of needed repairs.

“We’ve been Band-Aiding projects for years just to try to keep up,” Potter said. “But, it’s not getting us ahead and there’s no expansion money at all. We have to maintain our roads and we’re running out of options.”

While nobody wants to see tax increases, Vetsch said the local sales tax option is the most viable out there and expects to see opposition, perhaps even some significant opposition.

“I think it is going to be controversial,” Vetsch said. “That’s why I want to go the public. I want as much public input and transparency as possible. I could go both ways on it. I want great roads, but I’m also a strong advocate for reasonable taxes. I just don’t feel adding to property taxes is fair. This is much fairer in terms to how it is spread out.”

The board will set the public hearing date at time at the March 14 meeting to decide whether it should be held during a board meeting or set for special time.

In other items on the agenda, the board:

SCHEDULED a committee of the whole meeting for 10:30 a.m. following the March 28 board meeting to discuss strategic planning.

ANNOUNCED the cancellation of the July 4 board meeting. Because of the national holiday, the county courthouse will be closed that day.

AUTHORIZED attendance at a regional joint ditch meeting for March 10. Wright County shares joint ditches with Meeker, McLeod and Carver counties.

APPROVED final payment to Knife River Corporation, Sauk Rapids, for overlay work completed on Co. Rd. 147, Co. Rd. 116 and CSAH 42.