Column:Support sales tax option for the future

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 15, 2004

By Paul Overgaard

Several people have expressed their fear that the Shell Rock River Watershed District will hike property taxes to pay for lake cleanup projects. That’s not the District plan at all.

Some say lake cleanup is unnecessary and infeasible. That’s not the case either.

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The Shell Rock River Watershed suffers from nearly a century of direct and indirect pollution. The watershed totals 319 square miles and includes 11 lakes, including Fountain and Albert Lea lakes.

It is home to the city of Albert Lea and six small towns. The watershed is the head of the Shell Rock River, which flows into the Cedar, Iowa, and Mississippi rivers.

The entire watershed lies within Freeborn County, easing coordination of government units. The state formed the Shell Rock River Watershed District and appointed its Board of Managers in 2003 to overcome decades of neglect.

The city of Albert Lea and a local meatpacking plant started discharging wastewater into Albert Lea Lake in the 1920s. At the time, sewage treatment was crude, if there was any treatment at all. By 1934, the state of Minnesota found Albert Lea Lake to be &uot;grossly polluted.&uot; Studies in 1943, 1951, 1962, and 1973, all pointed to the need for better sewage treatment.

Finally, the city of Albert Lea built a new wastewater treatment plant. The $33 million plant, built with help from federal and state governments, started operation in 1984. The wastewater is now treated and discharged to the Shell Rock River, bypassing Albert Lea Lake.

The main source of direct pollution has stopped.

However, the indirect pollution continues. Since the mid-1800s, throughout the watershed, people have dug drainage ditches, farmed the land, filled in wetlands, built towns, and put in sewage systems. These activities improved the area’s health and economy, but degraded its water resources.


The watershed district &045; the whole community in fact &045; faces many challenges:

Low water levels, a hard winter, and low oxygen levels recently combined to cause a massive fish kill in Fountain and Albert Lea lakes.

In summer, severe algae blooms in lakes limit habitat for fish and wildlife.

The dam on the Shell Rock River is in disrepair and needs replacement.

Freeborn County has only a small percentage of pre-settlement wetlands remaining.

The Shell Rock River, which flows through Albert Lea Lake, is on the MPCA’s impaired waters list.

All lakes and streams in the watershed suffer from high nutrient levels, low water clarity, high rough fish populations, low oxygen levels and high sedimentation.


The Shell Rock River Watershed District Plan details several steps to improve water quality. These steps include reducing soil erosion, improving storm water quality, restoring wetlands, and much more. Funding is the main obstacle to taking these steps.

The city of Albert Lea and Watershed District see a local sales tax option as the optimal funding for lake cleanup projects. Please consider these facts:

10 cities and 1 county in Minnesota already collect a local sales tax. These communities make up 16 percent of Minnesota’s population. These communities are succeeding with their local sales taxes while others are forced to scrape by with their state aid and property taxes.

Albert Lea is surrounded by cities with local sales tax options: Rochester to the east, Mankato to the west, Bloomington to the north, and Mason City, Iowa, to the south.

The sales tax is much more fair than a property tax because people pay according to what they can afford. The sales tax exempts food, clothing and other necessities. The local sales tax option would also exempt major purchases such as vehicles and farm implements.

Lake cleanup projects would benefit the whole community. Projects would include reducing soil erosion, restoring wetlands, improving storm water quality and much more. By investing in its lakes, the community will restore the environment while improving its quality of life.

The local sales tax option would expire 10 years after first imposed or when it totals $15 million.

The sales tax offers a more equitable way to raise money, and Albert Leans agree. Albert Lea residents are more in favor of paying for lake cleanup through a sales tax increase than property tax increases, according to a survey by Cincinnatus, a research firm hired by the Albert Lea City Council (reported in the Tribune on Dec. 24, 2003).

Residents also think cleanup will better their quality of life and believe the legislature should provide them the opportunity to vote on the tax hike through a referendum.

About 48 percent of 376 respondents said they liked the idea of a half-percent sales-tax increase “extremely,” “very” or “quite” well. Nearly 20 percent dislike the idea.

In contrast, 7 percent of surveyed residents said they favored a property tax increase and more than 58 percent said they do not like it at all.

If we want cleaner water, we need to pay for it. If we want cleaner lakes, we need the local sales tax option. If we want to decide our future, we need to start now.

(Paul Overgaard is a member of the Shell Rock Watershed District board.)