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Published October 15 2010

Sales tax supporters fire back, argue that flood risk will continue if measure doesn’t pass

City and county leaders supporting a sales tax for flood protection took their turn at the podium Thursday, firing back at opponents who’ve criticized the ballot measure as being too vague and not having an approved project to fund.

As the Red River rushed over the Midtown Dam behind them, Cass County Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern and former County Commissioner Robbie Quick urged voters to approve the tax or continue to risk a catastrophic flood.

“It’s inevitable. If we don’t act soon, we’re going to be fighting these things year in and year out,” Vanyo said.

Supporters wore blue ribbons – larger ribbons will be tied around trees in the county – to remind residents of the need for permanent flood protection and the half-cent sales tax that would help pay for the local share of a Red River diversion and other flood control measures.

If approved on Nov. 2, the tax would take effect next April and raise an estimated $220 million over its 20-year lifespan.

About $200 million would be used to match Fargo’s half-cent city sales tax approved in June 2009. The dollar-for-dollar cost share is spelled out in a flood protection cooperation agreement signed in August between the county, city and Cass County Joint Water Resource District.

The county also would make $1 million to $2 million a year in proceeds available for other flood risk reduction or recovery projects, Vanyo said.

After the press conference, former Fargo mayor Jon Lindgren, who opposes the tax and co-chairs the No Blind Tax Committee, said a caller told him County Engineer Keith Berndt had promised the caller a road project funded with the sales tax proceeds.

Vanyo, standing several feet away, said that was untrue and pointed out that the county’s policy governing how the proceeds will be spent ­wouldn’t allow it.

“I think that this is just kind of rousing up false information,” he said.

The two also disagreed over whether special assessments on landowners would be a more expensive option than a sales tax to fund the local share.

Vanyo said that because specials aren’t collected until a project is finished, the county would need to bond and taxpayers would pay more for the interest that accrues. Lindgren said that’s “foolish.”

“That is the most ridiculous statement because, yeah, there’d be interest on the bonds, but the money’s in your savings account. You’re earning interest on it,” Lindgren said, adding, “It’s a wash.”

But Vanyo said bond money would have to be used to pay construction costs as the diversion is built, which Walaker said is expected to take 8½ years once it’s designed.

“That money doesn’t sit in the bank. It goes toward construction,” Vanyo said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t see how you’re going to make that a wash.”

Quick said the sales tax is the best way to raise the local share, noting the county used the tool to build a new jail.

“It’s the fairest way to have people contribute, because people from outside of the county that come to Fargo participate in that, too,” she said, urging voters “to trust the leaders of Fargo and Cass County to go ahead and get the ball rolling.”

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