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Published October 06 2010

Group opposes sales tax for F-M diversion project

The co-chairman of a committee opposing Cass County’s sales tax for flood control criticized the ballot measure Tuesday as a “blind tax” with no approved project to fund.

Cass County residents will vote on the one-half percent sales tax Nov. 2.

The 20-year tax would generate an estimated $11 million annually to help pay for the local share of a Red River diversion for Fargo-Moorhead and other flood control measures.

Former Fargo Mayor Jon Lindgren, one of three chairmen of the newly formed No Blind Tax Committee, said the group believes the county is “flying blind” with the tax.

“It has no approved projects to spend money on, there’s no schedule for approval of projects, yet there is a huge amount of money that will be collected if this tax passes,” he said. “And we would rather wait until we know what the money is going to be used for before we approve a tax.”

Cass County Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo said there is a project: the estimated $1.4 billion, North Dakota-side diversion channel being studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While Congress has yet to authorize the project, Vanyo noted that the mayors of Fargo and Moorhead on July 15 signed agreements to be the project’s local sponsors and pay their share of the diversion.

Leaders of both cities and Cass and Clay counties also have adopted the North Dakota-side diversion as their locally preferred option for flood control.

“The corps required a financial commitment ahead of authorization, so that is the step that we took,” Vanyo said.

Lindgren also opposed Fargo’s one-half percent sales tax for flood control because of the lack of an approved project. The tax, which yields about $10 million a year, was passed by more than 90 percent of Fargo voters on June 30, 2009.

“You’d have to say the odds are against us, based on that, but that doesn’t deter us from trying,” Lindgren said.

County commissioners voted Aug. 2 to put the sales tax on the ballot.

Vanyo said he expected the tax would face opposition.

The committee’s other co-chairmen are David Gust and Kevin Heiden, who have led landowner opposition to the diversion.

“I’m not surprised that some of the folks behind this are those who have been vocally opposed to it for the past year and a half,” Vanyo said.

The tax needs a simple majority to pass. If it fails, Vanyo said special assessments or another Fargo sales tax would be the most likely options for raising the outstanding local share, expected to be $150 million to $200 million.

The county could raise property taxes to generate the funds, but that would require a “substantial” mill increase that would put property taxes “way out of line” with the rest of the state, Vanyo said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528