Grand Forks library sales tax goes to ballotAfter four hours and 18 minutes of often contentious debate over imposing a new sales tax to build a new public library, the Grand Forks City Council voted 5-2 on Monday night to put it on the ballot in a special election May 3.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
After four hours and 18 minutes of often contentious debate over imposing a new sales tax to build a new public library, the Grand Forks City Council voted 5-2 on Monday night to put it on the ballot in a special election May 3.
Council members Terry Bjerke and Tyrone Grandstrand, who spent lots of time questioning and criticizing the plan, were the two “no” votes.
“This will be our third sales tax,” Bjerke said, after doing a historical review of the city’s sales taxes. He also predicted that the proposed new library, if approved by voters, would result in higher property taxes to pay for the added operational costs above what the current 9.57 mills in city property taxes for the library raises. “This is a double tax,” he said.
The council’s action proposes an amendment to the city’s home rule charter to add a 1 percent sales tax beginning Oct. 1 for 30 months, or until $20.8 million is raised, to be spent on the design, land acquisition and construction of a new library.
No location was included in the ballot language, per advice from City Attorney Howard Swanson. But it seemed clear a majority of the seven-member council approves of the volunteer library committee’s choice of a site just north of the current library that would involve buying more land and demolishing the old library.
The long meeting included lots of sharp words between council members, based largely on Bjerke’s long history of fighting spending and taxes, generally, and criticizing his fellow council members over it. He argued strongly Monday against raising the sales tax at all for a new library.
Halfway through the meeting, Council President Hal Gershman told Bjerke that on Jan. 14, he heard Bjerke say on a radio talk show something that was a first in the history of elected officials in the city. “If the people of Grand Forks vote this tax, you will encourage people not to shop in our city,” Gershman said he heard Bjerke say on the air.
That was outrageous, Gershman said, and he offered Bjerke a chance to publicly recant.
Bjerke said quickly that wasn’t exactly what he said. Rather, he simply was pointing out a logical result from people outside of the city to a higher sales tax: they will shop somewhere else. “This is America, and we have the right to shop where we choose,” Bjerke said. “People I know from out of town, they are tired of this. I’m not saying ‘Boycott Grand Forks.’”
Gershman said while many have criticized the volunteer committee proposing a new library, partly because they switched their view late last year on the best location from the former Leevers grocery store to a previously little discussed plan to build next to the current library and demolish the old building, he gave them kudos for the change.
That showed admirable open-mindedness to deal with new facts from the city on traffic and space problems with the Leevers site, and find another option, Gershman said.
While much of the debate was over larger issues of taxing, quite a bit was on the details, too.
Council member Eliot Glassheim proposed a ¾ cent sales tax for three years, saying that was the best way to win public support for the idea because a 1 percent sales tax addition would seem too high to more voters.
But council member Doug Christensen proposed a 1 percent tax for 30 months, what he called a “quick tax,” to get the project funded faster and not skimp on possible costs.
Council member Curt Kreun, appearing via video link from Bismarck, expressed frustration with the library committee for how the estimated cost of a new library had gone from $10 million to $15 million to $21 million in a few months.
Susan Mickelson, who leads the library board and planning committee, said it was difficult to answer Kreun’s questions when he wasn’t in the same room, so she knew which documents he was looking at.
About two dozen members of the public attended the meeting, half of them voicing their opinions, about six for and six against.
Six library patrons were marshaled by the library building committee to speak in favor of the proposed new building.
Kay Powell said when she moved to Grand Forks six years ago with three small children, “As soon as I found a grocery store, a library was the next thing I looked for,” Powell told the council. But it’s failing, with the elevator “going bad,” and the inadequate heating and air conditioning system. “I don’t want to see my library fall down.”
Another half-dozen citizens showed up to oppose the plan for a $21 million new library.
Speaking longest and perhaps most compellingly was Josh Gilleland, an owner of downtown bars, who said raising the sales tax would push customers away from Grand Forks to Fargo.
It’s too much public spending for too much library in a new age of information coming through the Internet. “Libraries are a dying form of information acquisition,” he said. “For $5 million, we could purchase every resident of Grand Forks an Amazon Kindle Tablet. Imagine: every resident would have an entire library in their hands and for an extra $1 million, we would get five years of Internet service included. That would save Grand Forks $7 million plus.”
He said other communities, including Fargo, St. Cloud and Minneapolis, have built fine new libraries using largely privately raised funds. If it was private money, he would be in favor of a “Cadillac” of a library, Gilleland said.
But in nervous economic times, just after a recession, for small businesses such as his that operate on slim margins, raising the sales tax will hurt, he said.
“Should Grand Forks be driving a Cadillac or driving an economical sedan,” Gilleland said.
After the vote, Gilleland said he was planning to form a group to encourage people to vote against the sales tax increase.
After the vote, Christensen appealed to the public to not blame the library planning committee, but rather find fault with the council for being “a bit benign.”
The sales tax increase for 30 months is the best way to “validate” two years and more of planning for a needed new library, Christensen said.
“Understand: Citizens now get to vote.”
Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to email@example.com.