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Published January 12 2012

Surplus encourages Moorhead, Dilworth mayors; Fargo, West Fargo mayors warn of property tax ban

FARGO – Aside from the continuing discussion on metro flood protection, the area’s mayors voiced words of caution and hope Thursday about potential fiscal issues in 2012.

The mayors of Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Dilworth reviewed their cities’ past year and the year ahead during the annual “State of the Cities” event with local business leaders.

Fargo Dennis Walaker and West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern expressed concern, particularly because of the threat of a June ballot measure that seeks to eliminate property taxes in North Dakota.

The idea sounds appealing in theory, but it could be devastating to local governments, Walaker said.

“It would put us in the same straits as the state of Minnesota,” he said. “(Property tax) provides a significant amount of funding, and if this passes, a new large bureaucracy will have to be prepared in Bismarck.”

If the measure passes, the Legislature would have to make up the funding gap and then decide where the money goes, instead of local government leaders deciding where their local property tax dollars go, Walaker said.

“If we lose control, it’s a step backward,” he said, with Mattern echoing words of agreement.

The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Thursday’s event, also opposes the proposal.

“This is a really dangerous, reckless piece of public policy,” chamber Director Craig Whitney said. “There’s roughly 3,000 political subdivisions in the state that take in over $850 million in property taxes. That needs to be replaced in some fashion.”

Across the Red River, 2012 seems to have more room for optimism than last year for Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland and Dilworth Mayor Chad Olson.

After a budget crisis led to a Minnesota state government shutdown last summer, positive news of a $900 million budget surplus could mean dollars back in city coffers, they say.

Voxland said he expects a swift, relatively uncontroversial legislative session that could allow both state and local governments time to stabilize their budgets.

“I’m pretty optimistic that they’re going to behave themselves,” Voxland said of legislators. “2012 is their best opportunity to do some major restructuring on how Minnesota does business”

Olson agreed.

“Even though I think we’ll be able to breathe in 2012, I think when we catch our breath we need to put together a plan for the city of Dilworth,” Olson said.

Another common theme throughout Thursday’s address was the unified effort among the four cities to secure permanent flood protection.

Walaker and Voxland explained the paths each of their cities is taking to shore up short-term protection along the Red River.

Both mayors also re-emphasized the need for a Red River diversion to fully protect the metro area against a 500-year flood.

“We want to do everything we know possible to get us some permanent flood protection, and we need your support,” Walaker told the chamber members.

Online:

Video at city of Fargo website