Sales tax draws fire

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 24, 2001

When the city of Austin asks for input from residents, people listen – especially when it is a topic residents are passionate about, like a solution to the flooding situation in town.

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

When the city of Austin asks for input from residents, people listen – especially when it is a topic residents are passionate about, like a solution to the flooding situation in town.

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Last Monday, First Ward Councilwoman Mickey Jorgensen introduced the possibility of an additional one-half percent city sales tax to be added to the state sales tax for purchases in Austin. The amount raised, $880,000 projected in a 1998 study and in 1998 dollars, would be used to aid victims of flooding and acquire additional homes from the flood plain.

"If there is any purpose for (a sales tax increase), this would be the purpose," Jorgenson said during a council finance committee meeting last week.

To gauge the public’s response to the idea, Mayor Bonnie Rietz suggested the issue be placed on the city’s e-Forum Web site, which can be reached through a link off of the city’s home page at

Rietz’s decision has brought quite a response in the week since the question was placed on the site. Of the 21 posts addressing the sales tax question on e-Forum, about 38 percent, or eight posts, were in favor of the increase, either wholly or with certain conditions.

"Maybe the citizens need a referendum (initiative) to limit city growth until the flood problems in the city are corrected. If this were to pass, the money should be used for solving the problem, not housing buyouts," resident Francis Skinness wrote.

Residents Belita and Dick Schindler submitted the following response, in support of acquiring and relocating homes in the flood area: "At this time, any heroic efforts to build holding ponds or water diversion structures or channels simply is not good use of taxpayers’ funds. Those solutions are rather like installing a pump in a basement when water is coming in through the window. The solution is to close the window not to buy a bigger pump."

On the other side of the issue, those who posted responses on e-Forum in opposition to the sales tax increase overwhelmingly gave one reason why they are opposed: those who are experiencing flooding knew what they were getting into when they purchased their properties.

Of those who have called the Austin Daily Herald since last Tuesday’s article about the increase – nearly a dozen residents – every one was opposed to the idea and gave the same reason most respondents on the e-Forum did.

"Some of those people located knowing it was a flood zone," Russell Ashley said.

"The merchants know they are running a hazard," Ethel Haase said.

"I think the city has to know this was not our idea," Vicky Trimble, resident and owner of The Hardy Geranium said about the sales tax increase. "It was the City Council’s idea."

Over the past several weeks, residents and business owners affected by flooding have gathered to discuss solutions to flooding in the city.

Trimble was part of the smaller but no less vocal group of residents who gathered on Monday night. She said since the last meeting of the group, a farmer who lives four miles northwest of Austin called to say he is willing to turn 1,800 acres of his land into a pond, but he cannot get the funding to do so.

"He was told by Freeborn County that would really help Turtle Creek," Trimble said.

"A guy who is on dry ground is not going pay for your house," Doug Bathke said.

Bathke said he has recently seen a national debate on the news about the effectiveness of spending home again and again to help people who remain in areas that regularly flood. Part of that national debate was sparked by a statement on Monday from Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh.

"The question is: How many times the American taxpayer has to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building levees and dikes?" Allbaugh said.

"If you logistically look at the city of Austin, it’s flatter than a tabletop," Bathke said. The city should find a way to slow the water down before it gets to the city, he added. Bathke and Dr. Mark Reeve said they support an idea to raise and lower the channel near East Side Lake when the extra capacity is needed.

Other ideas forwarded for consideration during the meeting were to convert the regularly flooded Marcusen and Driesner parks to ponds, create more spillways along the dams near the Mill Pond on the Cedar River, buy more homes, and dam up streams along areas that regularly flood, such as First Street NE, near the Hormel Corporate Office and Wildwood Park.

Charles Rector, who lives near Wildwood Park, pointed out that some people currently affected by the flooding purchased their homes before flooding was an issue in their neighborhoods: "When I moved in, there had never been a flood. We just stand the loss, I guess, huh?"

Second Ward Councilman Pete Christopherson, who was at the meeting, encouraged those present to encourage residents to support the increase. "I’d like to see it go for structural repairs. I don’t want to buy any more properties," he added.

Double K Specialty owner Kyle Klaehn said residents affected by the flooding should call their councilman or county commissioner to encourage the joint city-county watershed manager position idea introduced by First Ward Councilman Wayne Goodnature.

Though this issue is just in the idea stage, without a clearly stated plan for using the funds raised by the sales tax, the city may find the passing of a sales tax referendum an uphill battle: "If you try to raise money before a program, it’s a tough sell," Bathke said.