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County board chair: Sales tax getting mixed reviews

By Sarah Smith

Heavy traffic on a Hubbard County roadway may push county commissioners to implement a sales tax, even though residents seem skeptical.

County Road 81 is the designated poster child for a law passed in 2013, allowing counties to impose up to a .5 percent sales tax for a specific project.

One only.

If the county has other projects, the tax implementation process, which includes a public hearing but no vote, starts all over again.

Paving County 81 from Highways 4 to 7 is estimated to cost $1.6 million for grading, base and bituminous pavement.

“I’ve already had people talking to me,” Hubbard County Board chair Cal Johannsen said at Tuesday’s bi-monthly meeting.

“They’re not happy, the way the state is shoveling it off on us.”

Counties are bearing more and more of the expenses commissioners feel should be the state’s responsibility.

Roads are just such an expense.

But commissioners agreed Minnesota roads are in generally better shape than most other states.

County 81 is a gravel road.

“People don’t want to drive to the conditions,” Johanssen said.

County 81 is carrying more traffic than it should realistically carry, County Engineer Dave Olsonawski indicated.

The 3.2-mile stretch has 215 “projected average daily traffic.”

The county has 51 miles of paved county roads. At $200,000 per mile, Olsonawski said that’s $10 million + in costs. But maintaining those roads is getting expensive and even though the department sets aside $300,000 to $400,000 annually, there’s simply not enough money to go around for all the projects, Olsonawski told the board.

Commissioner Kathy Grell was skeptical.

“I like paved roads, too, but…,” she said.

Grell grilled Olsonawski on the cost of gravel maintenance costs versus paving, to see if the county would really save in the long run.

Olsonawski acknowledged it cost $8,700 to maintain County 81’s gravel last year.

Grell suggested it would take many years of that type of maintenance to reach $1.6 million.

Olsonawski said he’s had the County 81 project on hold for years awaiting a funding source, since it’s not a county-state aid highway. A limited sales tax, he said, is the solution. The tax would have an automatic sunset clause as soon as the project was paid for.

Merchants have been mildly supportive of the tax. But most would rather have a smaller tax in place for a lengthier period to ease the impact.

Johannsen said from what he’s hearing, county residents aren’t too keen on any type of tax, small or moderate, regardless of a sunset clause.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364