East Grand Forks leaders weighed the ins and outs on Tuesday of another sales tax as the city’s existing one approaches its expiration date.
Administrators at city hall said they’re searching for ways to pay for large public projects, some of which have been put on a back burner. They drafted a handwritten list of more than a dozen that sales tax revenue could help pay for, including a master plan for LaFave Park, which council members opted to break into chunks to make it more financially palatable, and renovations to the Civic Center and VFW Arena parking lots.
East Grand Forks voters approved in 2016 a 1 percent sales tax that city staff expect to expire approximately a year from now. City staff said that tax brings in about $74,000 each month -- $880,000 annually -- to pay back a loan the city took out for renovations to a public pool at Sherlock Park.
Minnesota lawmakers also need to sign off on new sales taxes, and the city couldn’t implement a new one within a year of the old one expiring. City Administrator David Murphy told council members that they should start talking about a new sales tax now if they hope to get it in front of legislators this winter and voters in the upcoming general election.
City staff are expected to group by type the different projects a sales tax could pay for to help council members prioritize them. The city could ask for the tax to pay for a handful of projects, but voters or lawmakers could opt to only approve some of them, city staff said.
City Council Member Marc DeMers characterized the tax for the pool as a successful test for residents’ appetite for a sales tax -- “People, I think, have supported the result,” he said -- and encouraged other council members to “think bigger” about the projects they could put together with a new one’s proceeds. He asked for “benchmark” options for potential revenue figures, and wondered aloud if the council was willing to bond against the tax revenue to get a project done quickly, or bank the money and put a project -- or slate of projects -- together incrementally.
City Council President Mark Olstad said the city is approaching a point where it would need to consider fixing up its parking lots, particularly downtown ones, and characterized the cost for doing so as “astronomical.” Murphy said city staff had considered putting that on the informal list of projects they drew up.
“If you put everything on this list, we’d have a sales tax for 50 years,” he said.
In other happenings at the meeting, the council:
Was briefed about a nonprofit distribution center for Northwestern Minnesota food banks that plans to move from Crookston. North Country Food Bank plans to buy a site that was used by Sacred Heart School in the aftermath of the 1997 flood. The food bank’s executive director said they outgrew their space in Crookston.
Was asked to consider a roadway swap -- a “potential jurisdictional transfer” -- with the Minnesota Department of Transportation that would mean the city would take over Business Hwy. 2 from DeMers Avenue to Hwy. 2, a stretch of 2.1 miles, in exchange for a half-mile stretch of city-owned road from DeMers Avenue from Fourth Street Northwest to Highway 2. MnDOT staff said the city’s piece of DeMers is one of the few “principal arterials” under local jurisdiction. City staff said making the swap would put the city in line for about $38,000 in state aid because it would take over about 1.6 more miles worth of street, among other considerations.
Was asked to consider approving the purchase of a new vehicle for the East Grand Forks Police Department’s K-9 unit. All of these matters are expected to be forwarded to a formal council meeting next week.