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Published February 06 2012

Forum exclusive: Fargo sales tax lacks support

FARGO – A majority of city commissioners here say this summer is too soon to ask residents for a sales tax extension to fund infrastructure and flood protection projects.

Mayor Dennis Walaker announced his intent last week to float the proposal, potentially putting it to a vote as early as the June 12 city and primary election.

Walaker said last week an extension of the tax could fund downtown road work or help pay for permanent flood protection, including the city’s share of the Red River diversion – estimated to be about $220 million.

But three commissioners have told The Forum that’s too fast, especially with the diversion’s approval and price tag still up in the air.

Three members of the five-person board would have to vote in favor to add the tax proposal to the June ballot.

In a letter to the editor in The Forum today, Commissioner Mike Williams declares his hesitation to support the half-cent extension, coming about a week after Commissioner Dave Piepkorn was the first to publicly oppose it.

Tim Mahoney also thinks a June vote is too soon. He said the measure might need to wait a year.

“In some ways, I’d like to see the authorization and federal funding (for the diversion) come through first,” Mahoney said.

While pursuing the diversion, city officials are also trying to shore up flood protection in vulnerable neighborhoods. Mahoney said the revenue from the sales tax extension could go to fund those projects in the short-term.

But that’s what commissioners need to decide, he said.

“That’s what the public wants to know: Where is the money going?” Mahoney said. “I’d like to see a little more clarification.”

Walaker’s proposal would extend a half-cent sales tax for infrastructure projects due to expire in June that raises more than $10 million per year.

Both Williams and Piepkorn are up for re-election in June. Williams will seek to keep his seat, while Piepkorn is still deciding on a bid.

In The Forum today, Williams writes “it’s premature at this point to put a sales tax proposal on the spring ballot.” Williams said city leaders need ample time “to define the specific needs prior to placing any sales tax proposal on the ballot”

It’s reasoning Piepkorn agrees with.

“A lot of things have to be clarified,” he said. “We’re a long way before it gets to be on the ballot.”

Commissioner Brad Wimmer said it is “premature” to come out for or against the proposal.

“The concept, I’m in favor of,” Wimmer said, “but I’m waiting like everyone else to see what the specifics are and exactly how it’s going to be defined.”

Wimmer said the sales tax could be sought in November or even in 2013.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541