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Wendy Reuer, Published October 24 2010

Ice arena funding tops Fergus Falls ballot

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – Fergus Falls voters will be answering the question of how to pay for an $8.6 million community ice arena on Nov. 2.

Voters can approve following the route of a half-cent sales tax, or they can vote “no,” and council members say the money will come out of property taxes.

The Nov. 2 ballot question does not guarantee a half-cent sales tax will be implemented, but it does allow the city council to ask the state Legislature for approval.

Mark Sievert, city administrator, said there are three steps in passing a sales tax for Fergus Falls.

The city started by passing a resolution in July to pursue the tax question. Now, voters must approve the tax in a general election, and the Minnesota Legislature must give its approval.

Funding for the community arena will come from three sources. A local fundraising committee claims to have secured $3.2 million and the school district will provide $1.6 million. Tax payers will pay the remaining $4 million.

Although a sales tax would not be imposed on housing, food or vehicles, state law does allow the city to impose a $20 per vehicle tax on vehicle sales. The half-cent sales tax would sunset once the $4 million is raised.

Council member JoEllen Thacker said the new arena is needed to replace the old building, which is not up to code. Thacker said the cost to repair the current building would be far more than $4 million.

The arena would not only be used to supplement the popular hockey programs, but ice skating and other community events could be held in the facility as well.

However, Thacker says if the sales tax option is not passed, the project will still move forward on the taxpayer dime. “We will be levying property taxes,” Thacker said.

The city would like to open the new facility by fall 2011.

It’s the attitude of one-way-or-another that has some residents concerned about the ballot issue.

“There are certainly a number of people who feel as though the city council has acted in such a way that they have no choice but to protect themselves from the property tax by voting for the sales tax,” said Daryl Synstelien, a Fergus Falls resident. “Why I’m uncomfortable with that is it feels to me like bullying.”

Synstelien said the issue of building an arena should have been put to the voters in the first place.

The city is also in need of a new law enforcement center.

Although land has been purchased by the city, no funding for construction has been secured or decided upon by the council.

City council candidate John Strauch says the city should be looking at funding that project first. However, Strauch said that either way, a sales tax would likely have less negative economic impact on residents than increased property taxes.

Even if voters give the council the go-ahead to request a sales tax increase for the project from the Legislature, Sievert said he doesn’t know if he can answer how its vote may go.

Sievert said, “It’s got to get through the different tax committees and the vote of the Legislature as a whole. It can be a tough sell, but we’ve built our case, and the bottom line is if you don’t ask you’re not going to get it.”

Fergus Falls ballot

What the Fergus Falls voters will be asked:

Shall the city of Fergus Falls, Minn. (the “City”), be authorized to impose a sales-and-use tax of ½ of 1 percent to finance the costs of the acquisition, construction and equipping of an approximately 72,000-square-foot community ice arena to be located at 340 Friberg Ave. in the city?

Also on the ballot:

Should the Fergus Falls School District renew a $416-per-pupil levy that expires next year? A “yes” vote would simply extend the district levy another 10 years. No new taxes would be installed.

Four city council seats

are up for election:

Ward One:

Jamie Cooper

Brad Howland

Stan Synstelien

(no incumbent in Ward One)

Ward Two:

Tim Jensen (incumbent)

Steve Gundersen

Scott Rachels

Ward Three:

Jay Cichosz (incumbent)

Jerry Gullickson

Tim Rundquist

Ward Four:

Randy Synstelien (incumbent)

Lesley Nielson

John Strauch

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530