Leaders not sold on lake-improvement district

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Though it could be a way out from a financing dead end for Albert Lea and Fountain Lake projects, responses to the idea of a lake-improvement district

(LID) are far from embracing, so far.

Tony Trow, representing the Fountain Lake Association, made up of lake property owners, and Destination: Albert Lea, which orchestrated a local option sales tax proposal last year, thinks forming an LID is politically impossible.

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&uot;It would be a nightmare for the county to come into the city of Albert Lea and set up the LID,&uot; Trow said.

Trow, who said he had gathered information about the option before the sales tax proposal, said the LID typically works for lakes where small numbers of lakeshore property owners want a project like flood control or a dam, but not for one like Fountain Lake that is located in the middle of a city. &uot;It is not intended for that kind of purpose,&uot; he said.

&uot;That lake is the asset of everybody living within the watershed. And I think a lot of people who are viewing, walking around, boating and fishing on the lake are not residents of Albert Lea,&uot; Trow said. &uot;It would lead to, say, ‘My house is worth more because it is on the lake. Therefore, it should be my lake. Let’s close down boat ramps, and not allow anybody else who does not live on the lake and pay this extra tax to use it.’ That is ridiculous.&uot;

Trow, who is running for mayor of Albert Lea, said he would continue to support the county’s effort to manage the lake improvement issue on its own as long as the board allocates substantial funds for it. He said he’ll also continue to push for the sales-tax proposal.

Mike Kelly, a member of the Albert Lea Lake Improvement Committee, stressed that any special funding mechanism might not be necessary.

Kelly voted against the lake-management plan assembled in the committee from his ecological standpoint. He was particularly against the dredging, which he thinks was driven by business and recreational interests and would negate other ecological restoration efforts for the lake.

Kelly, who is a city council candidate, pointed out that dredging is the most costly project proposed in the plan and does not necessarily have to be done because of potential negative impact on the lake environment.

&uot;At some point, after trying other efforts, we may dredge. But, between now and then, we don’t need that special funding mechanism for the lake because we can do it far cheaper. We don’t need millions of dollars to restore the lake.&uot;

But he shares the opinion of Trow that beneficiaries of lake improvement are not limited to lakefront residents.

&uot;The Lake Improvement District narrows the field of who would pay for it. But I do think the lake is a community resource. I am not ready to concede that the lake belongs to them and they can do whatever they want with it,&uot; he said. &uot;That is privatization of a sort, in effect.&uot;

&uot;It sounds to me that it gives too much authority to the district to decide what’s to be done. The public should be the one who makes the plan.&uot;

Mark Anderson, the only mayoral candidate who explicitly opposes the sales tax, is skeptical of imposing any additional tax burden on the people at this time.

&uot;The people in the Freeborn County feel that they are being taxed enough. And it goes back to the issue of priorities. Is this the right time? Even if the LID is proper, is this the right time to put this on the table, when we have other things such as the school referendum and courthouse?&uot;

&uot;Everybody wants to see action right now, but it carries a price tag,&uot; Anderson said. &uot;It’s more than the issue of a funding method. Do you want to fund that particular thing, and do you want to fund it right now?&uot;

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lake Management Supervisor Russ Schultz defended the LID, saying it would be a more promising way to carry out the projects than the county government can do on its own.

Schultz pointed out that an LID solely in charge of lake improvement would be free from the need to shuffle money from one department to another like the county needs to; thus, it is easier to commit to long-term projects.

But, Schultz admits that setting boundaries would be a difficult task.

&uot;The further away you get from the lake, the less the interest of property owners would be. I think all the community residents do have some benefits of the lake. But it may not be the direct benefits like the lakefront property owners,&uot; Schultz said. He proposed that it would be a good idea to have some steps for the tax rate depending on the distance from the lake.

Out of 16 LIDs in the state, only two involve some part of a watershed, and the rest are made of strictly first-tier properties bordering the lake, Schultz said.