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Fargo, Cass County each to meet about sales tax

FARGO -- The Fargo and Cass County commissions Monday will independently consider half-percent sales tax initiatives to help pay for permanent flood protection for the metro area.

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FARGO -- The Fargo and Cass County commissions Monday will independently consider half-percent sales tax initiatives to help pay for permanent flood protection for the metro area.

Representatives from the two groups Tuesday failed to determine which government should bring a sales tax measure to voters to help finance a $1.3 billion Red River diversion to protect Fargo-Moorhead.

Fargo wants a city-only tax, while Cass representatives seek a countywide vote.

Faced with a Thursday deadline to get the issue on each body's agenda, they decided both commissions would vote on their own sales tax plans.

That would leave officials just four more days -- until April 9 -- to negotiate which tax measure would go on the June election ballot.

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Mayor Dennis Walaker said he believes city residents would overwhelmingly support the added sales tax to protect the city, while there would be opposition to a county sales tax from cities not directly benefiting from the diversion.

"We want to be fair," Walaker said. But "trying to sell rural Cass County on this is going to be extremely difficult."

Cass Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo was adamant in opposition.

A Fargo sales tax would be "a slam dunk," Vanyo said, but residents from outside the metro area who shop in Fargo would feel as if, "you put this on us" without having any say in the tax.

Vanyo said the move would be "a black mark" with state lawmakers.

"You're going to lose a lot of votes" in the Legislature, he cautioned.

A countywide tax vote gives all county residents a say in paying for a diversion, rather than having it imposed on them, Vanyo said.

"I think in the sense of being neighbors, it's the right thing to do," he said.

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County Commissioner Steve Wagner said educating residents about benefits to West Fargo, Horace and Harwood, would be "a good message. ... I think there's a lot of value to working with the county sales tax."

A Fargo-only sales tax vote would require 60 percent approval by voters.

A Cass County tax vote would require a simple majority for approval.

Vanyo said county officials also want special assessments in the financing mix, saying they place the burden more squarely on those who benefit from the project, and they lower overall borrowing costs. He said assessments would also draw favor from state lawmakers who may be asked to kick in $315 million.

He warned that if Fargo decided on a sales tax alone to pay the costs of a diversion, "then we have a rub."

The local cost share of the North Dakota diversion is now pegged at $730 million. If approved by Congress, the remaining $565 million would be paid with federal dollars.

Fargo, Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties signed off on the North Dakota plan last week as being the local option that they want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to further study and build.

Vanyo said Fargo officials should not be overly fearful of resistance.

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"One has to have faith that one has a commodity here that you can market," he said.

Walaker said he'd like to see an assessment benefit survey and has no problems with reasonable assessments, but he maintained that a sales tax is vital to come up with enough money locally to pay for the project, particularly since choosing the North Dakota diversion over a similar-sized Minnesota channel added at least $150 million to the local cost share.

Related Topics: 2010 FLOODSCASS COUNTY
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