East Grand Forks’ mayor suspects the coronavirus pandemic might put on hold a city tax plan that would help revamp some of its ice arenas and ballfields.

City leaders’ 1% sales tax proposal needs to be approved by Minnesota lawmakers before it can head to citywide ballots for final approval this November, but Mayor Steve Gander on Tuesday, April 14, said he thinks there is little chance it will make it out of the Capitol.

“Their priorities in St. Paul have so shifted to (the pandemic) and recovery and the funding of individuals and businesses through this time,” Gander said at a virtual city council meeting. “Their whole legislative agenda has been put off to the side, and so the likelihood of it coming through the Legislature is almost zero.”

East Grand Forks leaders have been hashing out a new sales tax for months. In February, they OK'd a plan to tax some purchases at 1% to pay for $13 million worth of upgrades to VFW Memorial Arena and East Grand Forks Civic Center, plus $2 million worth of work on ballfields at Stauss Park. Council members had sent a more ambitious 2% plan to St. Paul the month prior, but scaled it back after area legislators expressed skepticism about it to Gander.

Survey indicates support

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Even if it’s put on hold for a year, East Grand Forks residents are reportedly on board with the plan, according to an online survey created last month by city staff and a consulting firm.

Of the 259 respondents who indicated they lived in the city, 163 said they support a 1% sales tax increase, according to documents prepared by Parks and Recreation Superintendent Reid Huttunen. About 66% believe the projects it would pay for should be at least partially privately funded, about 27% said they’d be willing to donate their own money, and about 44% weren’t sure if they would.

For context, about 8,600 people live in East Grand Forks. The survey is still online.

Forty-seven percent of respondents indicated that renovating or expanding the Civic Center was their top priority.

There was less enthusiasm for converting the VFW Arena into a multipurpose fieldhouse, which was the other big-ticket item city leaders have floated. About 13% of city respondents put that as their top priority, and about 20% indicated that they would prefer the VFW be renovated but kept as an ice arena.

City-imposed sales taxes in Minnesota last until they bring in X amount of money or until Y amount of time has passed. They also have to pay for a specific project or set of projects. East Grand Forks’ proposal would expire once it brought in enough money to pay off a $15 million loan or 20 years -- whichever comes first -- for the Civic Center, VFW and Stauss renovations.

And, despite the wording on the survey, the city’s proposal would not ultimately increase sales taxes there by 1% because it would replace an existing 1% tax that’s set to expire this summer.

But City Council member Dale Helms, a routine skeptic of the sometimes-lofty plans to revamp the city’s Parks and Rec facilities, worried that even the proposed 1% tax, which would maintain the status quo, would be too much.

He also questioned how the city had gauged public opinion thus far, which amounted to online surveys and a pre-pandemic open house at a high school hockey game.

“You went to the hockey people with your program, and now you want everybody to come to you and do whatever. It bothers me,” Helms said. “The other thing that bothers me is that, the state we’re in right now, we don’t even know how many businesses are going to survive when this is over and done with. We don’t know when it’s going to be done. I can’t see any business in East Grand Forks wanting to see a 1% sales tax. I think this is something that needs to be put on hold for a while.”

Tuesday’s meeting was a work session, which means that City Council members made no binding decisions on the proposal.

The plan, Huttunen told council members, is to put together a more detailed survey that can be spread more widely through the city.