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County board postpones transit sales tax until 2015`

By Sarah Smith

Hubbard County commissioners ducked a political hot potato Tuesday and put off considering a controversial transit sales tax until 2015.

The Greater Minnesota Transportation Sales and Use Tax was passed in 2013, allowing political subdivisions to levy up to a half percent in sales taxes to pay for specific road and transit projects.

Commissioners heard complaints at the public hearings they conducted last month in Park Rapids and Lake George.

But mainly they heard questions about why the county wasn’t finding the money elsewhere to fix its own roads.

A sales tax, once added, could be indefinite, taxpayers worried.

The statute allows political subdivisions to collect the tax to fund a specific project. Once the project ends, so would the tax. But many taxpayers were skeptical that the county would do just that.

Taxpayers urged commissioners to look for savings to fund county road projects and add those funds to the county levy.

“What goes on the levy stays on there, too,” said a skeptical Cal Johannsen, pointing out that levying the added amount could be a semi-permanent solution, too.

“Have we turned over every single rock?” for savings, Grell asked.

The board asked several legal questions about the hearings that go along with the statute, but County Attorney Don Dearstyne did not attend the meeting.

County Engineer Dave Olsonawski, who had first proposed the tax, tried to hide his disappointment after the vote.

“It was probably half expected,” he said Wednesday. “But they’ve cut my budget by $480,000 to $490,000 to use that other funding source.”

The county has regularly overspent its County/State Aid funds, which come from the state and are generally earmarked for jointly owned roads.

Olsonawski said in 2010, Hubbard County overspent those funds by $482,311. Taxpayers chipped in the additional funds.

In 2011, the county overspent the CSAH funds by $741,571 and in 2012, an additional $536,000 was passed on to county taxpayers for improvements.

Olsonawski said the county cannot continue this deficit spending.

Asphalt roads deteriorate in 20 years and must be extensively repaired or replaced, he said. The county has around 50 miles of such roads.

“Our costs don’t go away,” he warned.

The county had thought to pass the sales tax mainly onto summer residents who use the roads. But seasonal residents complained that they would be paying it during winters and in a recession and that might be too much for locals to bear.

Sarah Smith

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

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