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Published March 05 2012

In surprise turnaround, majority of Fargo commissioners vote to move ahead with plan to seek city sales tax extension

FARGO – Despite dissension in the ranks, city leaders here are moving forward with plans to put a sales tax extension to Fargo voters this summer.

After 50 minutes of heated debate Monday night, Fargo commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of drafting a resolution asking for the extension, which the board aims to consider no later than its April 2 meeting.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn cast the lone opposing vote, but Commissioner Mike Williams also voiced strong displeasure at the prospect of putting the measure to the voters so soon.

A half-cent infrastructure sales tax is due to expire in June, and Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker is leading the charge to have it extended in order to pay for more infrastructure improvements and further the city’s flood protection efforts.

But with less than a month for the commission to pass a resolution that would put the measure on the June city ballot, Piepkorn and Williams voiced serious concerns about the timeline and the ambiguity in what the tax would be used for.

“I really fear that if we don’t do this right, we may not get the voters’ approval,” Williams said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a sales tax on the ballot that hasn’t had the support of the full commission.”

After Monday night’s discussion, the purpose of the sales tax extension still wasn’t specifically clear. However, city commissioners are seeking to model it after the 1-cent sales tax approved in 2006, which would allow the funds to be used for a combination of infrastructure projects, capital improvements and flood protection.

“Every time we’ve been putting (a sales tax measure) to the public, we haven’t defined the project specifically,” Fargo Administrator Pat Zavoral said. “We try to be as generic as we can to provide both infrastructure and flood protection.”

Walaker said the existing tax has been used to fund direly needed projects, including the replacement of more than 150 miles of cast-iron water main, of which there’s still 50 miles left to replace.

Fargo leaders are also still in the early stages of shoring up citywide flood protection to 42.5 feet, an effort that could cost $200 million if completed in full.

That expense is separate from the Red River diversion, which could cost the city at least another $200 million for its share, based on the current project.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Walaker said. “Delaying this is not the solution.”

Commissioners Tim Mahoney and Brad Wimmer are also now on board with moving forward on the tax extension this summer, marking a shift in their positions from last month when they agreed with Piepkorn and Williams that June would be too soon for a public vote.

“I’d hate to put a gap in there,” Wimmer said Monday. “Continue the stream rather than stop it.”

Piepkorn and Williams adamantly urged the board to spend more time to consider the need and purpose for the tax extension.

At two points during the meeting, Piepkorn aimed to reiterate his dissent in the discussion, only to be interrupted by Walaker who pressed for the urgency in extending the tax.

The exchanges highlighted the lingering frustration and tension behind the city leaders’ passionate disagreement.

“It seems like we’re rushing it, and I have a problem with that,” Piepkorn said. “It’s a very serious amount of money. What exactly are we going to pay for?”

City commissioners plan to meet again in two weeks to discuss the draft referendum and hear reports from city engineers on how the sales tax dollars have been used so far and what they’re needed to fund in the future.

In order to put the measure on the June ballot, city commissioners would have to approve their referendum and have it published no later than April 12.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541