East Grand Forks leaders are staring down a January deadline to pursue a new sales tax — one that could fund ice arena renovations and other parks and recreation improvements around the city.
City Council leaders met in a work session on Tuesday night to discuss the future sales tax, reviewing a list of potential projects they could fund as well as revenue forecasts for both a 1 percent and a 2 percent tax. The council did not make any binding decisions or take a vote, but the discussion impressed on City Council leaders that they have a Jan. 31 deadline to submit early plans to the Minnesota Legislature, which must approve the framework for local sales tax increases. Only after state approval can the tax be pitched to voters in East Grand Forks.
Local leaders spent much of Tuesday night not just discussing the scope of the tax, but grappling with the brief timetable as well. Potential projects for the money include significant renovations at the East Grand Forks Civic Center and VFW Arena, as well as improvements to LaFave Park, the Greenway and Stauss Park’s baseball fields, totaling roughly $32 million in 2020 construction dollars.
The arena projects comprise the lion’s share of that money, weighing in at an estimated $25 million, per city documents. Equipment there is also a matter of city concern; Reid Huttunen, the city parks and recreation superintendent, said the city has spent $110,000 in maintenance on two ice arenas’ icing equipment.
“(I) got a call at 5 p.m. on Veteran’s Day…the ice was melting. The compressor hadn’t run for 24 hours. It just decided it didn’t want to start,” Huttunen said. “I just kind of go in and I close my eyes and close my eyes and cross my fingers when somebody goes in to press the button again. … They’re at the point where I don’t think anybody can come in and promise that, yes, we’re going to keep it running for the next three, five, seven years.”
City leaders were torn over exactly how to proceed, and weighed the possibility that the city might present a large tax plan to the state — giving them a broad mandate to propose plans to the public — but dial back the final tax proposal to something more palatable to local voters. City Attorney Ron Galstad argued that the city’s hands aren’t tied by the state’s approval, in that leaders could “pull the plug if you don’t like what you see down the road or the citizens’ input nukes it.”
“But what if we bring (a proposal) that’s ridiculous?” Gander asked. “Now we’ve kicked the can even further down the road. Why not put something out that, in our gut, is right, that the citizens would really embrace?”
City leaders also discussed their hope that local projects’ costs could be diminished, perhaps by area donations or even by naming rights deals.
The meeting comes as the city eyes the 2020 sunset of a 1 percent sales tax enacted in 2016 to fund improvements to the public pool at Sherlock Park.
City Administrator David Murphy said that the council will likely decide next week whether to pursue a sales tax plan next year. If council members wait, another shot at a plan will not come until the 2022 general election — or, in his words, “If we’re going to pursue it here this go-round, or if we’re going to wait to next go-round.”
City Council member Chad Grassel was not present for the meeting.