Few attend local option sales tax hearing
The annual statutorily required public hearing on the local option sales tax attracted only 9 people when it was held at the Wadena County Courthouse Monday night, Aug. 11.
All five commissioners attended the hearing to answer questions from the public and hear positive and negative feedback about the local option half-percent sales tax, in effect in Wadena County for the first time in 2014. The tax went into effect on April 1 and is levied on anything that is currently subject to sales tax in the county.
The local option sales tax does not include food, clothing, or other items excluded from taxation by Minnesota laws.
County Engineer Ryan Odden presented an explanation of how the tax is collected by Wadena County merchants, the estimated revenue that has been and would be produced by the ½ percent sales tax in 2014 and beyond, and the effect of the tax on the average family of two adults and one child ($1.86 per month).
Odden showed how counties can use the sales tax revenue for transportation projects. The tax revenue may only be used for capital costs of transportation projects or improvements, for costs of a specific transit project or improvement, for capital costs of Safe Routes to School programs, and for transit operating costs.
Odden would like the half-percent sales tax to continue beyond 2014. All five commissioners seemed to favor the continuation of the tax. It is estimated to bring in about $600,000 to the Road and Bridge Fund in 2014, and about $821,000 in 2015, if renewed.
Odden presented a list of items that will be included in the 2015 transportation project to be completed with funds from the half-percent sales tax. They ranged from a three-block road reconstruction in the City of Wadena, to graveling and stabilizing sections of four county roads, and painting center lines and border stripes on county roads as needed.
Several of the nine county residents asked questions and made comments about the program. None questioned the need for the half-percent sales tax, but several indicated that they did not understand certain aspects of the program. Odden and the commissioners answered the questions as best they could.
• One person questioned the county's legal right to include several items in its project list for 2014. He insisted that the county was breaking the law. Odden and several commissioners tried to explain Minnesota Statute 297A.99, which covers the local option sales tax, but the person would not be deterred. He demanded that Odden provide him with a copy of the statute.
• Another person asked whether the money could be used for public transit. Odden said it could, but it would not, because the Friendly Rider program is self-supporting and does not need additional funding at this time.
• A third person asked whether the property tax levy would go down each year that the local option sales tax is in effect, as it did in the 2014 pay 2015 levy. The commissioners could not answer that question because the county budget for 2015 has not been determined yet.
• Another person asked whether the Highway Department was loaning money to the County Fair Board. Commissioner Jim Hofer said yes, but only until the Fair Board receives its money from FEMA.
• One person reminded commissioners that many people in Wadena County live on fixed incomes. Commissioners responded that the half-percent sales tax gathers funds from tourists and people passing through the county on U.S. 71 and U.S. 10, who stop to eat in restaurants, buy gas, etc., and has little effect on county residents' budgets. The average county resident's contribution to the half-percent sales tax is 62 cents per month.
Several commissioners emphasized the need to maintain the county roads where residents live. The local option sales tax makes this maintenance work possible.
The public hearing lasted from 7 to 8:12 p.m., when all questions had been answered, and Board Chair Bill Stearns adjourned the meeting.