LF Council votes to put local option sales tax referendum on November ballot

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

The Little Falls City Council passed a resolution on a 7-1 vote to put a local option sales tax on the Nov. 4 General Election.

That was the first step in implementing the tax. The City Council also had to decide the proposed tax rate, the amount of revenue to be raised, its intended uses and an anticipated date the tax will expire, and pass a resolution.

The sales and use tax of one half of 1 percent is proposed to expire after 12 years and will be used to pay for capital costs for the construction of the Little Falls Area Recreation Complex, in north Little Falls.

If the resolution is passed by the voters within the city, the city must request and the Legislature must enact a special law authorizing the imposition of the tax.

The referendum question to be placed on the ballot states: “Shall the Little Falls City Council impose by ordinance, a sales and use tax of one-half of 1 percent (1/2%) for the purpose of paying capital costs for the construction of the Little Falls Area Recreational Complex including, but not limited to, property acquisition, rest rooms, picnic shelters, community facility, ball fields, tennis and basketball courts, all wheel park, splash pad, access roadways, utilities and parking lots, as well as hiking and biking trails within the complex and throughout the community.”

The accompanying cost estimate was $7.5 million. However, that did not include the splash pad, which was included in the list of items estimated at an additional $400,000, bringing the total to $7.9 million.

City Administrator Dan Vogt said staff met with the mayor and Council Member Frank Gosiak about how to word the question. Then staff met with the city attorney and it was decided to include more of the project than originally discussed, because if it were going to include just ball fields, the tax dollars could not be used for other components of the project.

The state statute says the question must be specific, so more items were included.

“If you want to take items out of here it’s as simple as word processing,” he said. Vogt said he didn’t want the Council to think anyone was “trying to pull a fast one” in adding the splash pad.

The Little Falls Area Recreational Complex Task Force recommended including at least the four anchor projects: the ball fields, all-wheels skate park, splash pad and bike/walking trails.

Guessing the amount of revenue that might be raised, based on the most recent numbers from the Minnesota Department of Revenue, Vogt said perhaps a couple hundred thousand could be generated in a year but it was just a guess.

Vogt noted if the referendum on the local tax was passed by the voters, it would then go to the legislature and if passed there, the city would have to pass an ordinance and the tax may be put into place by July or October of 2015.

Should the funds be raised before the end of the 12-year life of the tax the Council could decide to end the tax early. If the funds were not raised, the Council could decide to try to extend the tax as well.

Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder noted the fact that the splash pad was not included in the financial breakdown the Council had received.

Vogt said it was a simple miscommunication between himself and Public Works Director Greg Kimman, who put the figures together.

Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said that the plan was to work to get the splash pad in place by next year. “By the time the revenue comes in for this, we’re hoping the splash pad is up and running by then,” she said.

City Attorney Toni Wetzel cautioned the Council about removing items from the ballot question. The money would not be available for anything taken out of the question.

“We’ve been talking back and forth for probably two years and we kept saying that we’re going to take the splash park out of there because it’s going to be funded with donations and grants,” said Council Member Greg Zylka. “And I think we’re confusing the heck out of the committee and we’re confusing the community by going back and forth. We have to decide what the heck we’re doing and all sing the same song.”

Council Member Jeremy Hanfler asked if the splash pad were included, if the funds could be used for operation and maintenance.

The money is only for capital costs, Vogt said.

“It just bothers the living heck out of me that we didn’t have the splash pad included in the project because, I can just see the notes at the bottom of the story about how some of us tried to put a fast one by you and it wasn’t,” said Vogt. “I missed it, that’s all there’s to it and if you don’t want it — tell us. If you do want it — tell us. Go through every one of these items and cross out which ones you don’t want … adopt whatever resolution, or not, you want. You don’t have to put this to the voters.”

Crowder, concerned with the operating costs of the splash pad, said, “I know Greg has expressed his concern from day one, also. It’s all fine and dandy to do this, but where are we going to get the revenue for running this facility? If we can’t use the .5 percent tax for that, where is it coming from?”

VanRisseghem noted that the operating expenses for the splash pad came in at $20,000 or so a year. “A small price to pay for our community,” she said. “We easily bellied up $25,000 for the golf course this year. I feel we should be able to do that for our kids.”

Her commitment, she said, was to build the splash pad. “If we get it built before and you guys add it into this, then we’ll just pay off the revenue earlier,” she said.

Kimman said the largest expense for operation and maintenance of the splash pad is the water.

“It really comes out of one pot of money and pays the enterprise fund for the water department,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily think that $25,000 – $30,000 is too much to pay for operation and maintenance,” said Zylka. “My point is we have to understand that and be committed to that as a Council. That money has to come from somewhere and I don’t want to sacrifice the school resource officer. Are we going to have to raise the levy to do that? That’s my concern.”

Mary Kenna, chair of the Little Falls Area Recreational Complex Task Force noted everyone had to be on the same page. “Look at, right in this room, the confusion,” she said. It is critical, she said, that a group be formed to educate and raise awareness about the complex and that it wasn’t the task force’s purpose to do that.

“Find a real key committed group of people to share that message, so everyone can make an informed decision on this project,” she said.

Crowder was the lone no vote for the resolution. He said it was because it was presented in a “flim-flam” way, no plan for maintenance costs, and that “there was so much confusion about what the money was slated to be used for.”

“I’m surprised that those things weren’t ironed out before this was presented,” he said.

He felt the tax was a tool designed by the Legislature for large projects like the city’s wastewater treatment facility. “We don’t want to keep going to the well too many times,” he said.

Ken Swecker with Sen. Paul Gazelka’s office provided information on what would be taxed should the local option sales tax referendum be passed.

The local option sales tax applies to the same tax base, with the same exemptions, as the state sales tax.

It would not apply to the sale of electricity gas or other heating fuels delivered by the seller, or the transfer of motor vehicles, aircraft, watercraft, modular homes, manufactured homes or mobile homes.

Little Falls City Council Briefs


In other business Monday, the Little Falls City Council:

•Approved the audit as presented by Schlenner Wenner & Co.;

•Approved scraping, priming and repainting the railing near the Little Falls dam at a cost of $2,000;

•Approved on a 7-1 vote a permanent handicapped parking sign by First Avenue Dental. Council Member Loren Boyum voted no, he felt the handicapped parking was needed only during the week;

•Chose not to reopen discussion on where the city would hold its checking account;

•Approved amending the bench advertising franchise agreement to reflect verbage on the new bench ordinance;

•Approved a $16,831.99 bid from Linescape Parking Lot Striping of Pillager for pavement marking improvements. Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder asked that next time the bidding process be done in the spring;

•Approved an expenditure of $1,065.50 for Braun Intertec to do pull tests on the anchor bolts to test that they will hold on the new street lights being installed;

•Approved soil testing on areas of First Street Northwest where petroleum leaks may have occurred when the area was occupied by gas stations and auto shops. Also approved was a bid of $11,769 from Braun Intertec to complete material testing for the same project;

•Approved expending $43,934 to Mead & Hunt to complete an environmental assessment of a 20-acre parcel located on the northwest end of the airport near the end of the main runway before purchasing it. The ultimate purchase  of the property for a future runway would be funded by the FAA Airport Improvement Funds;

•Tabled approval of an ordinance amendment relating to alleged violations of conditional use/variance conditions, until a summary was prepared for publication;

•Approved restricting parking on the east side of 10th Street from Highway 27 to Fifth Avenue Southwest;

•Approved entering into a mutual technology agreement between the Little Falls Police Department and the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office;

•Approved a change in the city’s Municipal State Aid Streets to better take advantage of state funds for improvement projects; and

•Learned from Public Works Director Greg Kimman that as of Monday, 40 of the more than 100 new street lights had been installed and that the city had received an $18,000 rebate from Minnesota Power for using LED lighting in the project.

The next meeting for the Council is Monday, July 21, at 7:30 p.m.

  • Erik Warner

    While recreational facilities throughout Little Falls sit in disrepair (check out the hockey rink at the North-end playground, for instance) am I to understand that the council wants me to vote to approve an increase in my taxes so that they can spend about $8 million to put a park in one of the least densely populated parts of town? Not just “No”……”Oh, H*** NO!”

    • tmac

      It sounds to me like they do not know what they want people to vote on.
      I think they best decide before they put anything on the ballot.

    • robin hensel

      you are absolutely correct Erik…not only that hockey rink is in disrepair, but the ball field that sits adjacent to it doesn’t even have a pitchers mound or bases and has no gravel….it’s all grass. I hear at almost every meeting of the parks board and now the LFARC board that ball fields are so lacking in this city. Really? Why not improve that one then so the kids on the northeast end would have a decent ball field?

    • robin hensel

      I am getting calls from people asking me why the splashpad is on the sales tax referendum when the Mayor has been telling everybody at all the meetings she has attended for the last four years or so now, that the splashpad is going to be paid for with all donation money. No taxpayer dollars would be involved. She even stated that at the senior center awhile back during her public comments/concerns talk.

  • robin hensel

    Notice how the reporter skims over the bench language amendment….as if it were not really IMPORTANT. Nothing could be further from the truth….the stricken language WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL and allowed the City to CONTROL THE CONTENT OF THE LANGUAGE ON ADVERTISING BENCHES!!!! This is a huge part of why I am not willing to sign the settlement agreement. Has the City of Little Falls negotiated in BAD FAITH during the settlement hearing in March in Duluth in front of Judge Brisbois? Sure seems like it to me. I believe my lawyers agree.

    • Rick Witte

      Robin, you are not willing even after the City changed the language of the agreement? Is resolution of the matter your goal or is continuation of the lawsuit your real quest? It would seem that elimination of the offending language would meet your satisfaction and allow you to place your message on the benches without having City approval.

      I dont see the bad faith you present. the City agreed to allow you to have a bench near City Hall and then removed the offending language. It would seem apparent that your goal has been achieved the ability to have a bench near City Hall without having to have the City approve your message. Seems quite evident you are more about lawsuits than you are about Change!!!!!!!!1

      • newpolitiq7

        Hi, Rick — You seem to know about this — please let the rest of us know if the City gets to decide on approvable language for the bench. Thanks. (My understanding is that the language CAN be approved by CIty, now. Thanks for clarifying. Or, are you like the rest of us, waiting to hear from judge in Duluth? Thanks, Rick.

        • Rick Witte

          From my reading of the language and change presented at the meeting (available on the City website) the former language did in fact have the City approving the content of the bench ads, but the change in language removed that approval step. The only content banned by the City is ads for tobacco and alcohol.

          • robin hensel

            Rick Witte……how do you or the City explain why they negotiated a settlement with me, knowing they had the right to control the content of the bench? The City will have to answer that on July 23rd. Can’t tell me the City didn’t know about this or the language in the agreement between JMR2 investments and the vendee of the bench.

          • Rick Witte

            Robin since you seem to be well versed in these things explain to me why you entered into an agreement knowing what the language of the contract with the vendor was? In any event they changed the language so is it really an issue or is it that you merely want to keep an issue alive?

      • robin hensel

        wrong again Rick Witte…..as usual……hearing is in Duluth on July 23rd with Judge Brisbois. It will be interesting for sure.

  • Concerned citizen

    I like how our mayor thinks that $20,000 is just a drop in the bucket to pay operating expenses for her pet project (Splash Pad), and then states that we can throw out $25,000 for the golf course!! Understand this….The golf course accomodates a far broader range of people: Young, old, men, women, residents, and visitors…The splash pad caters to one very small specific group of residents and their children.

    • Mitch Rapp

      Are parents and their children such a “small specific group of residents” in this town that we shouldn’t build a park geared towards them? Come on Jeff. Just because it might not be for you, doesn’t mean it won’t be a great addition to this community.

      • Concerned citizen

        Sorry for sounding cold hearted and harsh about the whole splash pad idea, I would never begrudge the toddlers, nor the parents of their park. I just think we need to fund and spend money on things that are seriously necessary such as: Something for teens and young adults to do in this community! Finding activities for toddlers to participate in has never been an issue. But on the other hand, some of our teens and young adults have proven recently that they need direction! (I.E. Smith murders, heroine overdose, etc) We as a community need to intervene!!