DIVERSION DISCUSSION: Unknown whether sales extension might pay for diversion cost

FARGO – City leaders here will talk formally Monday night about the potential to extend a half-cent sales tax that’s expiring in June.

But whether those extra dollars might go to help fund the city’s local share of the Red River diversion remain unclear.

Actually, what exactly the tax would fund at all remains a mystery.

When the proposal was originally floated last summer, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the revenue from the tax extension could help fund the diversion project and other necessary flood protection in the city.

However, in recent weeks, Walaker has also raised the possibility of using the dollars for city infrastructure projects.

In a letter to the Forum’s editors published last week, Walaker detailed how the millions of dollars earned from the existing infrastructure tax have helped fund necessary street projects since it was implemented in 2002.

Walaker said the tax has helped eliminate or, at least, reduce the need for special assessments on property owners while also improving the city.

But there’s more infrastructure projects left to do in some of the city’s most well-trafficked areas, Walaker said, and he also cited the need for more revenue to fund the diversion and city’s flood protection.

In 2009, Fargo voters approved a half-cent sales tax strictly for flood control. But as I reported last month, the city has already spent at least more than double what they’ve taken in with that revenue.

Fargo leaders will need another revenue stream to cover their minimum $220 million share of the Red River diversion plan.

A half-cent sales tax in Fargo generates about $10-$11 million annually.

Walaker wants the extension for the expiring street sales tax to be put to the voters on the June ballot, but the city’s other four commissioners have previously said that’s too soon, considering the ambiguity of the extension’s purpose.

It looks like that issue could be cleared up with the slated discussion Monday night. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 300 2nd St. N., and is open to the public.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who was the first to come out against extending the tax this year, said he looks forward to whatever new information Walaker can provide to support his argument.

“He’s trying to get his way, but I don’t see it,” Piepkorn said Friday. “There’s literally no information there, and that’s been our main concern: What will it be used for?”

Commissioner Mike Williams said he also opposes putting the measure to voters so soon, especially without knowing for sure what the city’s responsibility of the diversion cost will be.

Piepkorn said he doesn’t believe voters would support a tax that funds infrastructure projects.

“I was under the impression it would be for flood protection,” Piepkorn said of the proposed extension. “If it’s for anything else, I think it doesn’t have a chance.”

Meetings ahead

As the first week of the month, many of the Diversion Authority’s boards are slated to meet in the next few days and provide updates on the project.

Wednesday morning the authority’s public outreach committee members will discuss their efforts working with the upstream communities who’ve organized in opposition to the current project.

That meeting is set for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Cass County Highway Department, 1201 Main Ave. W., West Fargo.

Thursday afternoon, both the land management committee and the full Diversion Authority board are set to meet at Fargo City Hall. The land management committee, which deals with mitigation and compensation issues, meets at 1:30 p.m.

Consultants and staff have been working behind the scenes since January to develop the specific process of how the Diversion Authority might go about acquiring the properties they need to both build the Red River diversion project and mitigate its impacts.

A draft of that plan is expected by the end of this month.

Meanwhile, the full diversion board gathers at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

The agenda will be released this week, but members typically discuss a wide range of technical, social and political issues associated with the project.

All meetings are open to the public.

Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column?
Send an e-mail to Forum reporter Kristen Daum at kdaum@forumcomm.com (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, P.O. Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107.
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