Job 1: Get voters to extend sales tax
By Jeffrey Pieters
Winning voters' approval of a $40 million sales tax extension is Rochester's and Olmsted County's top priority in the months ahead, local officials said Tuesday during a special Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce event in Red Wing.
The citywide referendum vote is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 4, said Rochester City Council President Dennis Hanson. The sales tax extension, approved by the state Legislature pending voters' approval, would authorize the city and county to collect $16 million each for road and highway projects, while earmarking an additional $8 million for higher education projects.
"We're really going to be out there and fighting hard (to convince voters)," Hanson said. "We're going to be full-bore and we're going to get it done."
Hanson, with Olmsted County Board Chairman Paul Wilson, addressed about 120 people in an hourlong program at Treasure Island Resort &; Casino. The leaders and attendees later boarded a riverboat, Spirit of the Water, for a two-hour dinner cruise.
The sales tax extension, leaders said, is a priority that, for now, supersedes other issues such as downtown redevelopment or planning for a four-year university in Rochester.
With just a bit more than two months to go before the election, Hanson said, officials and others who support the sales tax extension need to set aside whatever differences they have to speak with "one voice" to voters regarding the area's need for the money.
Ongoing Rochester-area residential growth, resulting from development of a Mayo Clinic genomics center and other economic initiatives, creates a need for new roads, which will have to be built regardless of the funding source, said Jim Bier, a county commissioner.
"We can do it (build roads) with the $32 million (sales tax), or we can put it on the property tax," Bier said. "It's real simple."
Timing was on the side of the chamber event, called Cruisin' with the Local Leaders, scheduled months ago for a date that wound up being just a few days after a special legislative session ended.
That session, widely noted for its grinding contentiousness -- including a first-ever state government shutdown -- also wound up being a great success for southeastern Minnesota, said state Sen. David Senjem.
By Senjem's estimate, the region will receive about $186 million of the $886 million state bonding bill, a share that's well out of proportion with the area's share of the state population. Projects in Rochester will receive $57 million of that, whereas a typical bonding bill delivers less than $10 million to the city, Senjem said.
The bill included money to begin planning for a four-year university, for a genomics research center at Mayo Clinic, for an 800-megahertz public safety radio system and for improvements to two regional trails.
"It was one of the ugliest years ever, and ironically it was one of the better years ever," Senjem said.
Rep. Fran Bradley concurred, calling it "probably one of the best legislative sessions we have seen for our area."
"But it was a hell of a fight all the way through," Bradley said.