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Helmut Schmidt, Published November 03 2012

Fergus school facilities bond debate muted

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – If there’s been a debate about Tuesday’s vote on a $6,265,000 plan to revamp athletic facilities at the city’s schools, it’s been a muted one.

A “Vote Yes” committee has run an active education campaign to support the outdoor facilities bond measure, which needs approval by a simple majority of voters to pass.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau touts the upgrades, particularly to the School District’s track and tennis facilities, as a way to attract more conference and regional athletic meets and drive business to restaurants and hotels.

The Fergus Falls Daily Journal has published an editorial supporting the initiative.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is remaining publically neutral.

While there’s no formal opposition to the plan, School District Superintendent Jerry Ness and other local leaders worry that voters, particularly those who are older, might want a break from taxes.

Combined with a big turnout for contentious contests at the local, state and national levels, leaders say that could lead to the plan being rejected.

“It’s hard to judge,” said Lisa Workman, executive director of the Fergus Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said the chamber surveyed its 300 members and only got 30 responses back. The response was a mixed bag, she said, and not enough for the organization to take a position.

Much of the work would be at Kennedy Secondary School, including construction of a new eight-lane track and field complex, with a football/soccer field within the track; a handicap-accessible bleacher system; two softball fields; eight tennis courts; concession stands and restrooms; more parking, a maintenance garage; and an environmental learning center.

Cleveland Elementary would get a regulation soccer field and practice field. And Roosevelt Elementary would get a fenced baseball field.

Ness said the measure must be listed as a tax increase on the ballot, even though if it is approved, voters would pay less in taxes than they do now. That’s because a 1994 school bond issue expires in 2013, he said.

“So there’s some hurdles we’re battling,” he said.

The 1994 bond accounts for $24.16 per year in property taxes on a $100,000 home. The facilities bond would mean a levy of $20.28 on the same home for the next 20 years, or a net decrease of $3.88 per year, Ness said.

Blaine Danielson, chairman of the Vote Yes committee, said the group has worked hard to educate the public on the issue.

He said the facilities won’t just help students and athletes, but pump more money into the local economy, and provide facilities for adults to walk and play, too.

“The feeling we have is a lot of people attending the games … probably are in favor of it,” Danielson said. But he’s “concerned some of the older folks may not be in favor of it” due to worries about taxes overall.

The business community appears in support of the measure, said Jean Bowman, director of the Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“From our perspective, it can bring people to Fergus Falls,” she said,

“We have a new community center, and the schools have been renovated,” Bowman said. “This is kind of the last piece of the puzzle. Let’s do it right.”

If the measure is approved, construction would begin in April, with completion in October.


For more background on the referendum, go to http://outdoorfacilities.fergusotters.org/

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583