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County OKs half-cent SMART tax

By Vickie Gerdes / DL Newspapers

A half-cent sales tax will soon be imposed on all retail goods and services sold in Becker County, as a means of funding county, city and township transportation projects.`

A resolution to adopt the new Safe, Multi-Modal, Active, Responsible Transportation (SMART) tax was unanimously approved by the Becker County Board of Commissioners Tuesday.

Addressing the 20 or so county residents in attendance for the public hearing on the proposed tax, County Administrator Jack Ingstad said, “The county could begin collection (of the tax) as early as July if the board adopts it today.”

As County Highway Engineer Jim Olson noted during his presentation at the public hearing, projects funded by the SMART tax should meet at least one of these identified criteria: Preserving the existing road system; addressing safety needs; major and minor system improvements; multi-modal enhancements (Safe Routes to Schools, trail projects, etc.); economic development enhancement; and addressing the county’s changing demographics (i.e., where high volume traffic areas have developed, etc.).

“Once these projects have all been completed, the tax eventually goes away,” Olson said, noting that projects to be funded via the SMART tax would be reviewed annually.

Though up to $20 million in road projects have been identified as meeting the preliminary SMART guidelines, the commissioners have authorized just $860,000 in projects for Phase I of the program — projects that are slated to begin construction this year.

Those projects include upgrading Otto Zeck Road from gravel to pavement; safety improvements to the intersection of County-State Aid Highways 6 and 11 south of Detroit Lakes, and reconstruction of CSAH 22/Washington Avenue.

During the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s county board meeting, several area residents expressed vocal support for the SMART project.

“I think the (state) Legislature giving us the opportunity to do this… we’re very lucky to have it,” said Detroit Lakes Alderman Ron Zeman, one of several City Council members on hand for the hearing to express their support for the proposal.

“People realize this is a real plus for the whole county, not just Detroit Lakes, as an opportunity to improve our roads,” said County Board Chair John Okeson, noting that the county’s “buying power” for funding road construction could diminish by as much as 30 percent over the next 15-20 years.

Some discussion at the hearing was devoted to whether the new tax would decrease the county’s property tax levy for road construction projects.

“That will be decided during the county’s budgeting process,” Ingstad noted.

In other business Tuesday, the county board also approved a resolution supporting state legislation that would allow the county’s auditor-treasurer and recorder positions to be combined, and to become an appointed rather than an elected position.

The board is seeking legislation to combine the positions in the wake of the resignation of County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen, who will soon leave his post to become business manager of the Detroit Lakes School District.

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