Grand Forks City Council member Doug Christensen is a brave one. To suggest a new city sales tax at a time when taxpayers seem to be in such a restive mood, a politician has to be either brave or crazy, especially when a new sales tax would do little to reduce the burden of property taxes.
But propose it he did at today’s quarterly meeting of local government leaders, which also included leaders from the county, the school and park districts.
The context was the county’s proposed sales tax hike to pay for the jail. Voters, it seems, have not been pleased with the county raising their property taxes by 8.26 mills because the county miscalculated jail finances.
But if the county did this, Doug figured, it would put Grand Forks’ Industrial Park in a pickle. The city has to expand the park because there’s no room for new factories. There’s not much money available either and Doug had been thinking about paying for it with a sales tax.
Since the city’s got its needs and the county’s got its needs and the Park District is dreaming of a new fitness center, he figured a shared sales tax could give everyone what they need.
Council President Hal Gershman and Council member Curt Kreun were at the meeting also and they seemed to agree with Doug but they didn’t really make their own case for it.
The county people seemed unenthused. I think they know they’ve upset the voters and feel that this sales tax is a way out. All they’ve gotta do is put it in place, wait four years, and then cut it and the jail problem goes away. They probably don’t need a simple plan like that complicated by Doug’s creativity.
John Staley, the Park District chief, however, was quite pleased to hear the city wants to give him money.
Doug asked me later what I thought of his plan and I said I thought his reasoning was sound. However, I said, a less charitable interpretation is that Doug threw it out there to pre-empt the county since, as he noted, if the county passed its sales tax the city will have little chance of passing a sales tax on top of that. I’ve not known city officials to be so willing to share revenue.
Doug said that that was no the case. He wants what’s best for the community so a sales tax that helps all is a good idea. Besides, he said, it’s time the local government entities coordinate more.
I really don’t see how he can sell this proposal, though.
Look at this state document and see what other cities statewide are doing. A majority are at 1 percent and some at 2 percent. We’re now at 1 3/4 percent.
If we add 1 percent as the county and Doug apparently wants, that would be 2 3/4 percent, the highest sales tax rate in the state. It’s even higher than Medora, which has 2 1/2 percent. Medora can pull that off because it’s the state’s most popular tourist destination. Grand Forks ain’t nothing like that and we gotta compete with Fargo for the shoppers.
Hal, who has a couple of liquor stores and a hotel, said he’s only gonna go as high as 1/4 percent. Retailers like him are well aware of how price and tax conscious shoppers are.
Doug said 1/4 percent would pay only for the Industrial Park and no more.
History also suggests Doug might have trouble.
Remember Mayor Mike Brown‘s state of the city address in 2003? He suggested a 1 1/4 percent sales tax for a water park, economic development and street and dike maintenance. The council pretty much reamed him a new one. Some council members then pushed the proposal down to 1/4 percent. The voters still rejected it.
Has anything changed since then?
Voters, I think, are angrier about taxes. They’re certainly more organized. Former Council member Terry Bjerke, for instance, has organized some sort of anti-tax group. Last I heard, he was trying to start some protest against the school district.
The 2003 fear that regional and Canadian shoppers will bypass Grand Forks to shop in Fargo due to high taxes are a little less credible these days since gas costs so much more. This logic may not apply to Canadians, though, since they’re used to high gas prices.
What do you all think? Out of all the uses for the sales tax, I thought the Industrial Park expansion was the best since more jobs is pretty much at the top of the agenda for local government.