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Patrick Springer, Published May 23 2012

Group to campaign for half-cent sales tax extension for flood protection

FARGO – A group calling itself the Protect Fargo Committee is urging voters to pass the extension of a half-cent city sales tax for flood protection and other infrastructure needs.

Members of the group announced the committee’s formation Wednesday, less than three weeks ahead of the June 12 primary vote, at a meeting with The Forum Editorial Board.

City primary voters will decide whether to extend for another 20 years a half-cent infrastructure tax set to expire in June. If approved, the tax would generate roughly $10 million a year for projects.

Flood protection tops the list of infrastructure needs that would be supported by the tax, but streets as well as water and sewer projects also would be funded.

Cole Carley, a spokesman for the group, said Fargo must step up and provide adequate funding for permanent flood protection. Failure to do so risks a catastrophe similar to those that struck Grand Forks in 1997 or Minot last year, said Carley, president and chief executive of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Proponents of the extension say Fargo taxpayers face stark alternatives: Continue the sales tax at current levels, at an estimated cost of $56 a year for a household of four, or pay skyrocketing flood insurance premiums once the new 100-year floodplain takes effect.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration will update Fargo’s floodplain in July, raising the 100-year mark from 38.4 to 39.4 feet, adding 2,300 properties and 7,800 acres to the revised maps.

That will mean property owners in south Fargo will pay $5.8 million a year for flood insurance, city officials have said.

“That’s millions of dollars from Fargo taxpayers that leaves town,” Carley said.

But the annual cost of flood insurance eventually could rise to $19 million to $20 million, if the area in the expanded floodplain is fully developed, said Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator.

Also, he said, perhaps in 10 years, FEMA’s definition of the 100-year flood likely will catch up to the threshold now set by the Army Corps of Engineers, 42.5 feet.

If that happens, virtually all of Fargo south of Interstate 94 would be in the 100-year flood plain – requiring home and business owners to pay many more millions every year for flood insurance, Zavoral said.

Because the city’s water treatment and sewage plants both are close to the Red River, the entire city is vulnerable to flooding if either would be flooded, as happened in Grand Forks in 1997, Carley said.

“It’s not just a south-side issue,” he said. “I think people forget there are issues north of I-94, too.”

The cost of increasing Fargo’s flood defenses to protect against a 42.5 foot flood is estimated at

$297 million.

City officials are working to reach that level even as the city, joined with other local governments, is striving to build a flood-control diversion to protect against a 500-year flood.

Both are needed, city officials have said. In fact, raising the city’s protection level to 42.5 feet is integral to minimizing upstream impacts from the diversion, by allowing higher flows through the city during extreme floods, Zavoral said.

Fargo taxpayers can’t rely on state government to pick up the full tab for flood protection. Despite gushing state revenues from the oil boom, most of that money is needed for infrastructure in the Oil Patch, Carley said. “As far as I can see Bismarck hasn’t been wild about throwing us a ton of money for the diversion.”

Proponents of extending the half-cent sales tax acknowledge that passage isn’t assured in the June 12 election, with a ballot crowded by four statewide measures and races.

“We are concerned about that,” said Ed Lockwood, a member of the Protect Fargo Committee.

The City Commission is divided in pushing for the tax extension now, with two of five commissioners opposing the tax. To pass, it must win 60 percent super-majority approval.

“We realize it’s an uphill battle but we have a lot of pluck,” said Carley, who steps down at the end of June as the head of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Protect Fargo Committee, formed two weeks ago, has a budget of about $25,000 and has hired Flint Communications to help get its message out through advertising and social media campaigns.

Lockwood is a resident of south Fargo’s Rose Creek neighborhood, a flood-prone area where homeowners banded together to create a flood-fighting fund.

That “war chest” became the grubstake for the Protect Fargo Committee. Lockwood admits that he has a stake in the outcome of the half-cent infrastructure tax vote.

His annual flood insurance premium, now about $400, would jump to $2,800 in two years. Fargo homeowners today pay $365 to $405 a year for flood insurance coverage on a $250,000 home with contents of $100,000, figures FEMA has provided the city.

Fargo faces significant infrastructure needs in addition to flooding, with $800 million in projects identified by the city’s capital improvement plan, Zavoral said.

They include replacement of 77 miles of cast iron water main lines, street repairs, as well as sewer and water projects for a growing city.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522