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What part of "no" don’t they understand? (02/25/2007)
By John Edstrom

Back in January of 2004, then City Council President Dieter Mielimonka, declared, "It is the voters, not the seven people on council," who would decide if there will be a sales tax. Well, last fall's referendum to re-impose the extra 1/2 cent sales tax was turned down overwhelmingly, by nearly a three to two margin. Have the people spoken? Yes, but they didn't say the right thing, so it appears they must speak again. It seems that Mielimonka was not speaking for the rest of the council.

According to Councilman Tim Breza, at the February 5th meeting, the reason for many no votes was that the city had not specified what the new tax would actually be spent on. Instead, a wish list of projects had been compiled, and it was promised that some of them would be undertaken, which ones, to be decided by some unknown process at a later date. Just trust us, said City Hall. The voting public smelled a flimflam and said "no, we don't." Whoever came up with that gimmick apparently thought the voters were dumb. Not, apparently, as dumb as Whoever.

This time around city government is coming clean. The money will be used, up to $8 million, to extend Louisa Street to Hwy. 61 from east of Menards, along the east edge of the Fleet Farm complex. The project was originally supposed to continue on behind the Holiday Inn to connect up with Hwy. 43, and was slated to cost about $4.7 million. Now, for $8 million, it will apparently terminate at Hwy. 61. "Whoever" seems to be at it again, probably the same party that originally projected the Pelzer Street project to cost $13 million, now up to $21.37 million and counting.

Several observations are called for in advance of a projected vote next September. First and foremost, much of any congestion along Mankato Avenue can be traced to retail development there, which city government had sold as an industrial park in order to pass the tax needed to create the space in the first place. These retail complexes are large, expensive, and pay commensurate property taxes, sums unavailable to the city until just now. Why is not this money being used to pay for the infrastructure necessary to generate it in the first place? It hardly seems fair to put all Winona retailers at a disadvantage which will arguably offset the draw of the recent additions to the commercial base.

An editorialist warned, back when the first sales tax was passed in 1998, that city government would come to feel entitled to the revenue and would never want to give it up. Now this prediction seems a wonder of prophecy. What other city of our size in Minnesota can't plan and fund street projects without passing a sales tax? What is the city doing with the funds that ordinarily would be spent on projects like the Louisa Street extension?

Further considerations before handing the city additional funding might take up how wise the Pelzer Street project will turn out to be when all the ethanol plans abuilding west of here stop the corn trucks long before they reach Winona's commercial harbor? Who will pay for the sewer extension out into Pleasant Valley, now that the market for new housing has fizzled so dismally? And what part of "no" doesn't this city government understand?



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