The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 25, 2013

North Mankato ponders sales tax question

Should it spend final $1.2M on interchange or something else?

By Dan Linehan

---- — NORTH MANKATO — In 2006, about two-thirds of North Mankato voters approved a half-percent sales tax to raise about $6 million and spend it on five projects.

The city has spent $4.8 million of that total, but it has spent almost nothing on one of the five projects — the interchange improvements at Highway 14 and County Road 41, also called Rockford Road.

That’s not really a problem, but it sets up a question for the City Council.

Should it spend the final $1.2 million on the interchange or, instead, on one of the other four areas approved in the ballot question?

The council at the time proposed a specific dollar amount for each of the five projects: $1.5 million for the interchange, $2.5 million for regional parks, $750,000 apiece for the Taylor Library and downtown development, and $500,000 for lake improvements.

It hasn’t quite gone that way — about $1.3 million was spent on downtown development, for example.

But those figures weren’t included in the ballot language, and the city isn’t limited by them, according to the city’s financial adviser. In other words, the council could spend some or all of the final $1.2 million of sales tax money on any of the five projects. Of course, it would still have to pay for the interchange with other funds.

A few members on the council, such as Diane Norland and Billy Steiner, say they don’t think they are bound by those initial proposals.

Norland said, “I would just as soon let it come in for a few years, then as we go we decide how we’re going to spend it.”

Councilman Kim Spears thinks the council erred by not sticking to those initial projections. Even though they weren’t on the ballot, he thinks voters were persuaded to vote for the tax based on the projections.

They were “sold a bill of goods,” he said, and “lied to.”

He supports paying for the highway project and nothing else.

“Just end it,” he said.

City staff estimate the council could spend up to $185,000 in sales tax revenue on other sources in 2014.

No decision has been made, but the issue could come up if the council discusses, for example, the scope of work at the Caswell North Soccer Complex, which has been funded largely with sales tax money.

And it doesn’t address an even longer-term question, which is whether the city will seek to reauthorize the sales tax.