Kennel study underway
by CHRIS ROGERS
After holding out for years, the Winona County Board narrowly agreed on Tuesday to pursue a county-wide sales tax to fund future road repairs. In a marathon meeting, the board also advanced a proposal to ban new frac sand mining and handling facilities in rural parts of the county, and launched a study of potential new rules for commercial dog breeding kennels or an outright ban on commercial dog breeding.
Three of five Winona County Board members agreed to kick off the process for imposing a half-cent-on-the-dollar tax on sales throughout the county that would generated an estimated $1.7 million per year. Legislative inaction in St. Paul and increasing pressure from constituents to fix roads spurred commissioners to consider the tax hike. Commissioner Steve Jacob, who had resisted enacting a sales tax for roads last year, backed the proposal. “We’re either going to raise a half-cent sales tax or increase our [property tax] levy,” Jacob said. “It’s one or the other,” he added.
Commissioners Marcia Ward and Marie Kovecsi had lobbied their colleagues to approve a half-cent sales tax for road repairs last fall, but Jacob and commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy declined, saying that the Minnesota Legislature had a duty to provide road funding. For years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), local governments, and business leaders have been urging the legislature to provide new, long-term funding to fix Minnesota’s rough roads and rusty bridges and make up for what Mn/DOT says is a multi-billion shortfall in transportation funding.
Adopting local taxes to do the legislature’s job for it would take the pressure off lawmakers to craft an action solution, Jacob, Pomeroy, and Olson said in 2015. This spring, the legislature came close but ultimately failed to strike a workable compromise. Olson and Pomeroy held to their previous argument on Tuesday, but Jacob came around to the idea of new tax for roads.
Normally, Jacob said, he does not like raising taxes, but many of his western Winona County constituents are already paying sales taxes when they shop in Rochester and experiencing none of the benefits when they drive home on Winona County roads. “More and more I’m hearing from my rural constituents that if you can promise that this is money will be dedicated to roads and bridges, and it’s not just being put into some big slush fund [they could support it],” he said.
Kovecsi has championed the idea of using a half-cent sales tax to help pay for widening Old Goodview Road in her district, adding shoulders to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians that often use the road. “As much as no one likes taxes, we all like safe roads and safe recreation opportunities on our roads,” she said.
Even if the legislature strikes a funding deal, roads like Old Goodview Road will not benefit because it's one of several county roads that are not eligible for state funding, Ward pointed out.
Ward added that one of the best parts of enacting a road tax is that it “broadens the base” of people who are helping to pay for roads, shifting part of the burden away from property owners’ property taxes. Last year, Ward advocated for using a half-cent sales tax to supplant part of the county’s normal property tax levy funding for roads — an idea Pomeroy criticized. Sales taxes are sometimes considered to impact poor people more than property taxes do, because poor people use a greater portion of their income to purchase goods. On Tuesday, Pomeroy raised concerns that the county might wind up shifting from using the sales tax to boost overall road funding to using it as a means to cut the property tax levy. “If we’re just saying this is additional money for additional roadwork that is very transparent and straightforward,” Jacob countered.
Pomeroy, who represents eastern Winona, also raised concerns that the sales tax would divert retail business out of the county and across the river to Wisconsin. He added, “I think it’s a tax that once enacted, will never go away.”
The County Board plans to hold a public hearing later this year before voting on whether to adopt a half-cent sales tax for road funding.
New rules, bans on frac sand, dog breeding advance
The Winona County Planning Commission will have its hands full after Tuesday’s meeting. In a 4-1 vote, the County Board passed on a proposal to ban frac sand mining — defined as sand mining for industrial uses — to the Planning Commission. Jacob and Ward criticized the proposal as unfairly and illogically singling out frac sand from other sand mining industries. The proposal would allow construction sand mining.
Jacob said the proposal was “setting the table for a lawsuit,” but ultimately voted to pass the proposed ban on to the Planning Commission and a series of public hearings. The frac sand issue is an “open wound in the community,” Jacob said. There will never be closure unless the county goes through the process for considering this ban, he added. Ward voted against the proposal.
The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed frac sand ban before forwarding its recommendation to the County Board for another public hearing and a final vote.
The County Board voted 3-2 to direct the Planning Department to study possible new rules for commercial dog breeding operations. The board asked county staff to work with animals rights groups, local dog breeders, and the Planning Commission to study whether there were any additional local rules that could help ensure dogs at local breeding facilities are treated humanely. Numerous animal rights supporters and commissioner Olson have called for an outright ban on commercial dog breeding in the county. Kovecsi and Olson voted against the proposal because they wanted to pass a moratorium that would block any new breeding operations for the next 12 months. Pomeroy, Jacob, and Ward voted together to launch a study, but skip the moratorium. Kovecsi said she did not necessarily support a ban. “I have no opinion at this time. I just want to see the process through,” she said.