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Common Currency: Look to future when casting Nov. 6 ballot

Alan Zemek

Fortune favors the prepared mind. And there has never been a time more critical to have prepared minds working on the complex range of issues that will impact the health and vitality of our community.

In just two weeks since this column last appeared, the city council has dealt with issues ranging from Aquatic Invasive Species, bond refinancing, assessment policy for city services extended into residen- tial lots that are trending towards commercial development, a development agreement for a new dialysis center opening in 2013, a new DNR bridge project and a major redevelopment of the river crossing at Red Bridge Park, along with more routine matters such as hiring new firefighters, and preparing a new budget for 2013.

In the midst of an emotional election season, controversial amendment issues on the state ballot, state and local office races, and a new interim city administrator that has hit the ground running, city staff professionals keep it all on track, publishing agendas, filing notices, and preparing data and reports for the next meeting.

After the election is decided next week, and the heavens do not fall, the hard work of self determination and self government will continue on in the hands of sincere and dedicated people that serve their community in a sometimes thankless task of trying to sort it all out for what is best.

And sorting it out for what is best is going to be tough work. Discussions at candidate forums hosted by the League of Women's Voters focused much around how to confront a backlog of critical city infrastructure projects that are still overdue and a state budget process that provides fewer resources to rural counties with every new biennium.

So, here is a question, as a city, as a county, as a region in north central Minnesota that most metro- politans take for granted will be here for them at their pleasure, do we settle for the resources dribbled out to us, or do we fight for the resources we deserve?

Fortune favors the prepared mind. The city operates on an annual oper- ating budget, and has a five-year plan for capital improvement projects, but as far as I have seen, each infrastructure project comes up individually, one at a time, about once a year or so, and gets voted up or down based on the currency of the moment and the consequences to local property taxes in an already stressed economic environment.

Maybe there is a better way to prepare ourselves for a more fortunate future. The basic economic structure of our community is this: We rely upon our attractiveness, our quality-of-place, our natural resources and cultural amenities for economic survival. The critical infrastructure needed to support our community far exceeds our local capacity to pay for it on our own, not because we don't want to pay our fair share, but because we serve regional needs that far exceed the corporate limits of the city's tax base.

Personally, I believe this mayor and this council deserve re-election because they have given faithful, quiet, and effective dedication to the service of the city's taxpayers, keeping eyes on both the bottom line as well as looking over the horizon for future needs that are inevitably coming.

But we do need a better model for financing long- term infrastructure needs. Acting on the city's vital infrastructure projects that have impacts for 30, 40, 50 years, or even longer, is problematic at best when it is done piecemeal. Annual updates to the capital improvement plan are to be expected to adjust for changing conditions and new developments, but the structural limitations of our tax base are not going away, and it is time for a structural solution to this problem.

Our next city council, our next state representatives and the business community in Park Rapids as well, should all start working together on an integrated campaign to implement a local option sales tax and to make sure our critical infrastructure needs get inclusion in the next state bonding bill.

I have heard all the reasons not to try: "There is a moratorium on local option sales taxes." "It's not a bonding year." "It means raising taxes."

Fortune favors the prepared. It may take a couple years to get there, do our homework, and make our case, but structural problems require structural solutions. The alternative is to just drift along and stand by as the state cuts more funding to rural counties and the tax burden on local property owners gets heavier and heavier to make up the difference.

Then the city will respond to pressure for relief, then critical infrastructure projects will get delayed, and then we would lose everything we have worked so hard to achieve in the last seven years. We can't let that happen.

Vote Nov. 6 for the candidate of your choice, but please vote for candidates that best prepare us for a fortunate future.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera