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Published June 12 2012

Fargo sales tax extension barely passes, might require recount

FARGO – A citywide sales tax measure here passed by just 63 votes Tuesday.

However, Fargo’s top city election official said that narrow margin might force an automatic recount.

The proposed extension of Fargo’s half-cent infrastructure sales tax needed 60 percent of the citywide vote to pass.

In complete but unofficial results, 60.3 percent of Fargo voters approved of city Measure 1, while 39.7 percent voted it down.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, “an automatic recount will occur when any individual fails to be nominated by 1 percent or less of the highest vote cast for a candidate for the office sought.”

Fargo Auditor Steve Sprague said late Tuesday he wasn’t sure whether the state provision applied to local ballot measures.

Sprague said he planned to consult with Fargo city attorney Erik Johnson this morning on how to proceed, since Fargo’s home rule charter does not have any provisions about automatic recounts in local elections.

Nearly 21,900 Fargo residents weighed in on the sales tax measure during Tuesday’s election.

Of those, 13,176 Fargo voters voted “yes” and 8,679 voters voted “no.” Based on the turnout, the measure needed 13,113 “yes” votes to pass.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker burst into a hearty laugh of relief when a Forum reporter told him the results just after midnight today.

“That is very good news,” Walaker said, adding with another chuckle: “Now I can sleep tonight.”

This spring, Walaker and other proponents of the tax extension waged a campaign to inform Fargo voters about needed infrastructure and flood protection, which the extension would fund.

However, critics – led by City Commissioners Dave Piepkorn and Mike Williams – voiced concerns about the vagueness of the measure and the exact purpose for the revenue.

If the measure failed, Walaker had said he would bring it back to Fargo voters in November, which would have given city leaders another five months to try and convince voters.

“We don’t need to go through this again in November,” Walaker said.

As approved by voters, the half-cent sales tax, which expires this month, will return Jan. 1 and last through 2032.

It should generate at least $11 million a year. But with the city’s growth, that tax revenue could climb to $22 million a year by 2031, resulting in a total income of $312 million over the life of the 20-year tax.

The half-cent sales tax was established in 1992 for street and sewer projects. Voters extended it in 2002 to also pay for permanent flood protection projects.

Earlier this year, Walaker proposed extending it for 20 years to help pay for an umbrella of priorities: streets, sewer and water infrastructure, and flood protection.

In March, city commissioners voted 3-2 to put the measure on the June 12 ballot. Walaker and Commissioners Brad Wimmer and Tim Mahoney favored extending the tax, while Williams and Piepkorn were opposed to doing so.

Walaker has been among the most prominent cheerleaders for the extension, although key city officials and community members have also been on board. A group of anonymous Fargo residents and businesses rallied together to support the sales tax extension.