ST. PETER — Authorizing a local sales tax to fund county road projects has some appeal to four of the 10 Blue Earth and Nicollet County commissioners. But a majority of commissioners on both boards remain skeptical of the revenue option, one of two new transportation funding opportunities provided to counties by the Minnesota Legislature this year.
Nicollet County Commissioner Jim Swenson, whose district includes half of St. Peter, said he could probably support a transportation sales tax if the state reduced and broadened its sales tax. And Commissioner Jack Kolars said counties might be waiting a long time for more road revenue if they wait for state lawmakers to agree on a new funding source.
“This is where stuff gets done — at the county level,” said Kolars, comparing the political process in courthouses to that in the state Capitol. “... They might not ever do it.”
But the majority of commissioners appeared willing to wait a while longer in hopes that the transportation funding gridlock in St. Paul might be broken.
“Some of us are going to ride it a while and let it be,” said Blue Earth County Commissioner Mark Piepho at a joint meeting of the two boards this week. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“I spoke to the ag community in my district, and they’re kind of gun-shy of a new tax,” said Commissioner Will Purvis of Vernon Center, noting that farmers are already being hit by rising property taxes due to skyrocketing land values.
And Commissioner Kip Bruender of Eagle Lake was concerned that implementing a county-authorized road tax is letting state lawmakers off the hook.
“We’re taking another step toward doing the state’s job,” Bruender said.
The Blue Earth County Board didn’t vote this year on implementing the sales tax or a $10 per vehicle wheelage tax, the other new opportunity for boosting road revenue that the Democratic-controlled Legislature provided to counties. Informal discussions showed that Piepho, Bruender and Purvis weren’t ready to support either, even as Commissioners Vance Stuehrenberg and Drew Campbell seemed more open to the ideas, partly in hopes of reducing the level of property taxes required for road projects.
Nicollet County had a formal vote on the wheelage tax, and it fell on a 2-3 vote, making the two most populous counties in the nine-county area the only ones to reject that tax. The wheelage tax would have provided an estimated $505,000 a year for Blue Earth County and $260,000 for Nicollet.
It’s the sales tax that offers the bigger windfall, especially for Blue Earth County with its status as a regional retail destination. Based on 2011 sales, a half-percent sales tax for roads would have generated about $1.2 million annually in Nicollet County and more than $5 million in Blue Earth County.
With the bi-annual lunch meeting scheduled between the two boards, Blue Earth County commissioners were curious if their colleagues to the north had any interest in the sales tax. The board had already instructed Blue Earth County Administrator Bob Meyer to gauge the support of Mankato business leaders.
Nicollet County Commissioners Dave Haack and Marie Dranttel said they sensed little support from business owners in North Mankato and St. Peter.
“I think they all think it’s a bad idea,” said Dranttel, a certified public accountant in St. Peter.
“People think taxes (in general) are a bad idea,” Kolars said.
As elected officials responsible for funding roads and other services, commissioners have to decide which tax is the best option, Kolars said.
Campbell suggested the sales tax is preferable to the property tax in funding roads. He pointed to the shoppers who come to Mankato from throughout the region on roads built and maintained with real estate taxes collected from Blue Earth County property owners. A sales tax would get visitors involved in paying for the roads they use.
“That means everybody that comes to Mankato helps take care of the infrastructure coming into and out of Mankato,” Campbell said.
Better still, Piepho suggested, is if taxes are collected statewide for a statewide resource like roads.
“It’s better if it’s done through the state,” he said.
Stuehrenberg said he remains undecided on the local sales tax, but he used sarcasm when characterizing a strategy of relying on state lawmakers to provide more funding for local roads and bridges.
“That’s worked very well in the past,” he said.