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.