Grand Forks residents, watch your mailbox: The campaign to hike the city's sales tax is putting an appearance in soon.
Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the local Chamber, said on Wednesday that about 10,000 mailers are headed out across the city in coming days, urging voters to support a half-penny, or 0.5 percent, increase in the local sales tax. A citywide referendum is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the Alerus Center, making the mailer, which includes an absentee ballot application, into a kind of closing argument that lays out the city's use for a new, $5 million-per-year revenue stream.
Wilfahrt revealed the coming campaign during a visit with the Herald's editorial board. He wouldn't get into financial details, but said the mailers are paid from the same set of private funds-raised by Chamber business members-backing other campaign efforts, from radio spots to print ads. He expressed confidence that voters support the change but lamented that success for the increase will be a matter of turnout, especially because, as a special election, no other items are on the ballot to draw voters to the polls.
That mailer lays out local leaders' elevator pitch: The city needs money to pay for its share of a $150 million water treatment plant and for road projects, but with falling state and federal aid, it's an increasingly difficult proposition. The money has to come from somewhere-be it water rates, special assessments or elsewhere-but a sales tax would mean visitors would help pay for it, too.
"The vast majority of people I have spoken to are supportive of the tax," said Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Keith Lund, who joined Wilfahrt by telephone on Wednesday. Both Lund's and Wilfahrt's organizations have endorsed the sales tax push.
But despite their confidence, city leaders have been here before. An attempt to hike the sales tax by 0.75 percent for 50 years failed at the ballot box in November, leaving Mayor Mike Brown calling for a second campaign just weeks after a defeat. Lost time is lost money, he argued at the time.
Now, city leaders have drawn up a sales tax with a narrower set of spending uses-water and road projects-at a lower rate that lasts only 20 years in a bid to win over the simple majority they need. If they're successful, the local sales tax rate will jump from 1.75 percent to 2.25 percent-bringing the total rate at the register to 7.25 percent.
Wilfahrt said if voters don't support the tax, it's unlikely the Chamber would make such a strident push anytime in the near future again. But, he said, he doesn't think it will come to that.
"The kitchen sink was in last time," Wilfahrt said, referring to the broader set of uses and the longer duration. "This time, the kitchen sink is not in the language."