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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 01 2010

Control a big issue in sales tax tussle

Determining whether Fargo or Cass County will ask the public to approve a half-percent sales tax this June will be a balance between which entity makes the best case for passage, fairness to voters, and ultimately, control of the project’s construction and maintenance, officials say.

As of Wednesday, neither side had backed down.

County officials want the tax to be decided countywide, while Fargo leaders want a city-only vote.

Cass County Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo said if Fargo controlled all funding for the project, the city would have de facto control of a project that will be built entirely outside of its borders.

“We’re looking for equal control, so we can work together on any issues. We want to team up with Fargo and work together on this,” Vanyo said.

A county tax would make them “equal players,” he said, until a joint powers board was created to take over the project.

A Fargo half-percent sales tax generates $10 million a year, city officials estimate. A half-percent countywide tax brings in $11 million a year, county Auditor Mike Montplaisir said.

A Fargo vote requires a 60 percent supermajority, but Vanyo and Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker agree city voters would approve the tax. A county vote requires 50 percent approval. Vanyo says education could sway voters.

Walaker calls that position naïve.

“Giving them the right to vote (on a tax benefiting Fargo) is somewhat naïve. Why would they ever approve something, from the goodness of their heart?” Walaker asks.

He said outlying towns have their own issues they might need to tax for and that he’s gotten no negative feedback from lawmakers.

“The major player is the city of Fargo, and the city of Fargo needs to move forward on this,” Walaker said.

He suggests that instead of raising the city sales tax to 7½ percent, the half-percent tax could be brought online in 2012, after another half-percent city sales tax expires.

“That would be one concession I think some of us would be willing to make,” Walaker said.

About 68.8 percent of all Cass County residents live in Fargo according to the latest Census estimates using the American Community Survey of 2006-08. The 2010 census is still under way.

The census Web site says there are 96,293 people living in Fargo, with 77,056 of them over the age of 18. The federal agency pegs Cass County’s population at 139,918 as of July 1, 2008, with 108,004 of voting age.

According to the county auditor’s office:

In the last two primary elections, slightly more than 19,000 Fargo voters turned out to the polls. In the 2006 primary, 19,208 voters showed up, while 19,113 showed up in the 2008 primary. In the 2008 general election, 51,765 Fargoans cast ballots.

Sales tax plans have also been on the ballot recently.

The June 2008 primary saw a proposed countywide half-percent economic development sales tax defeated easily when 63 percent of voters cast ballots against it.

Last June, Fargo held a special election for a half-cent sales tax for flood control. The city saw 12,711 people cast ballots, with 11,528 or 90.7 percent voting for the tax.

West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern said he thinks the county joint water resource district should run the diversion.

Mattern also questions whether Fargo could legally control the diversion, since it is outside of the city limits. But he has no preference on which tax is enacted.

“Both entities are going to have to go out and sell it to the public,” he said.

Vanyo said putting both issues on the June ballot would invite defeat of both.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Forum editor Steven Wagner contributed to this report.