Business leaders: Road sales tax unfair; Engineers outline need for county infrastructure funding

Published 10:32 am Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Austin business leaders spoke out against Mower County’s proposed half-cent sales tax during a public hearing Monday night in the basement board room of the Mower County Government Center. However, two engineers said the county needs additional funding to keep up with infrastructure demands.

“A local option sales tax on local goods and services is not fair,” Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandy Forstner said.

However, Mower County Public Works Director Mike Hanson recommend ed the half-cent sales tax be enacted to match the needs of Austin and Mower County.

Email newsletter signup

“We need a transportation system to match [these areas],” he said.

Jon Erichson, the former city of Austin engineer, agreed with Hanson’s opinion. Erichson doesn’t believe the gas tax does enough to fund the county’s transportation needs, along with new additions being made on the roads like pedestrian walkways and street lights, among other things.

“We have to increase funding to provide that,” he said.

Community members shared mixed opinions and insights on the county’s proposal, which would help fund more than 40 specific road and bridge improvement project in the county over the next 10 years with the help of sales tax dollars, should the board eventually vote to approve the tax.

“It would help our funding, but it won’t cure it,” said board Chair Polly Glynn.

During the meeting, Hanson presented on local transportation needs and potential projects realized with adoption of local option sales tax.

“Current funding is not keeping up with the county’s needs,” Hanson said.

In 2013, the state approved a wheelage tax and a half-cent sales tax as options for counties to fund local road and bridge projects. So far, 27 counties in Minnesota have enacted the tax. In June of 2013, the Mower board approved a $10 wheelage tax, which is paid when drivers renew licenses. That was estimated to bring in $357,000 a year.

The board has been discussing a roughly $100 million need for road and bridge projects over the next decade and an estimated funding shortfall of $6.5 million per year.

If the board votes to enact the half-cent sales tax, it would slim the county’s projected annual funding shortfall to $5 million a year, but it wouldn’t completely eliminate funding shortfalls.

Despite the need, the county’s proposal has been met with mixed reviews. The chamber passed resolutions to not support the half-cent sales tax. Forstner believes the tax would hurt businesses and their customers by driving them out of the county.

According to Forstner, he has seen statistics that show Austin already loses one-third in sales to other communities. While he acknowledges the need for additional transportation funds, he doesn’t believe the half-cent sales tax is the way to do it.

“We are seeking comprehensive, state-wide solutions to this issue,” Forstner said.

In past meetings, county commissioners have been outspoken about their displeasure with the state’s recent inaction on road and bridge funding, continuing to argue that they’re only discussing the sales tax because the Legislature remains gridlocked on funding options.

Forstner sees next year’s legislative session as a new opportunity to find a wide-spread and long-term solution.

Ralph Donkers of Donkers Hometown Appliances also believes the tax is not a good fit and solutions should be created at the state level.

“This is a very unfair tax,” Donkers said.

The county board will continue to discuss the half-cent sales tax proposal at about 10 a.m. on Aug. 9 following the Human Services Board business at 8:30 a.m.