Commissioners nonplussed by tax proposals

MARSHALL – New laws passed this spring in the Minnesota Legislature would allow counties to raise more money for highway projects, county officials said Tuesday. The catch, however, is that it would mean raising taxes.

During their regular meeting, members of the Lyon County Board discussed the possibility of using wheelage taxes or a local sales tax to increase county highway funds. Commissioners agreed that, although the state would allow the taxes, they would rather discuss the issue with county residents before considering it.

Interim County Engineer Aaron VanMoer said the 2013 transportation appropriations bill included two possibilities for Minnesota counties to raise money for their highway departments through local taxes. One option was a wheelage tax of up to $10 per registered vehicle. Counties would be authorized to collect the wheelage tax through 2017. After 2017, counties could pass resolutions to keep collecting wheelage taxes of up to $20 per vehicle.

VanMoer estimated the county could collect more than $200,000 in 2014 with a $10 wheelage tax.

The second local tax option would be a .5 percent local sales tax, VanMoer said. The transportation bill allows counties to skip holding a referendum on the sales tax and instead implement one by resolution after a public hearing. If Lyon County implemented a .5 percent local sales tax, it could collect an estimated $3 million in 2014, VanMoer said.

It could also be possible for Lyon County to enter a joint powers agreement with other counties, he said. This would give counties access to a larger potential tax base, or raise money for large or shared road projects.

Commissioners had mixed feelings about implementing either tax option.

“I want to do some reading on this and talk to people,” said Commissioner Steve Ritter. He and Commissioner Rodney Stensrud said they would like to see the board discuss the issue at a later meeting.

Commissioner Charlie Sanow said a wheelage tax would basically be a user tax for people who drive on county highways. However, he didn’t think he could support a local sales tax to raise highway funding.

County Board Chairman Rick Anderson said it would be a good idea to have public hearings if the board seriously wants to consider the tax options.

“It probably isn’t going to happen for 2014,” he said, “but it would be good to talk about it.”

A pair of items concerning the Lyon County fairgrounds were also brought before commissioners. Members of the Lyon County Fair board said the board had been offered $16,300 in state grant funding to build a hoop barn with a built-in stage at the fairgrounds. Several area groups had expressed interest in having the 60-by-80 foot structure built because it could be used for events at the fairgrounds.

However, counting the grant and local contributions, the fair board only had about $27,000 of the $49,000 needed to build the structure.

“We’re sort of in a predicament,” said board member Pat Verly. The fair board asked the county to consider funding the remaining $22,000 to build the hoop barn.

Commissioners voted to approve the funding request, with the intent of including it as part of the fair budget for 2014.

Roger Schroeder also brought forward a report on repair and update work needed at the fairgrounds grandstand. Schroeder said the grandstand will need some concrete and masonry work in its north ticket booth and electrical rooms, as well as new sidewalks, stairs and railings leading up to the grandstand. A cost summary for the structural improvements came to a total of about $274,000, Schroeder said.

In addition, Schroeder said the grandstand’s roof would need to be repaired or replaced. Commissioners had questions about the cost of a roof replacement, and whether the grandstand structure needed a roof.

“The roof is the biggest thing,” said Stensrud. Overall, the grandstand itself was very sturdy, he said.

Sanow said he would like to get bids on the roof work, to get an idea of what it might cost. Commissioners directed Schroeder to get more information on what repairs or replacement for the grandstand roof might cost.

Commissioners approved a revised construction agreement with Great River Energy to protect county roads during construction of the CapX 2020 power line project. VanMoer said a segment of the project is being built west from Redwood County to a transmission station near Marshall. At this time, it would mostly be Stanley Township that is affected by construction, he said.

The county had originally requested a letter of credit for $100,000 from Great River Energy, in case any Lyon County roads were damaged by the construction equipment. However, VanMoer said the developer couldn’t provide the letter of credit and agreed to issue a $100,000 performance bond instead.

Commissioners voted to approve the updated agreement.