State and local leaders discuss taxes, funding

Published 2:26 pm Saturday, January 7, 2017

Freeborn County officials stressed the need for stable, long-term transportation funding to state legislators on Friday at the Freeborn County Government Center.

District 1 Commissioner Glen Mathiason told District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks and District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett that an increase in the gas tax is needed to stem a transportation funding gap.

Mathiason said the issue should be bipartisan and is a fair way to address the gap.

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“Not a Democratic or a Republican issue to me,” he said. “It’s a fairness issue.”

Mathiason said with relatively low gas prices, taxpayers should be able to afford a nickel increase in the gas tax.

“We just need to have some type of stable funding to move it forward,” he said of improving roads and bridges.

Sparks said there needs to be a consistent transportation funding mechanism that can ensure transportation funding will no longer be neglected.

District 5 Commissioner Mike Lee said he has talked to constituents who are scared their roads will be changed from paved to gravel.

Lee told Bennett and Sparks that commissioners have done everything in their power to help alleviate the transportation funding deficit, including passing wheelage and sales taxes.

Commissioner Jim Nelson said commissioners have had a tough time trying to keep county roads in good shape with increased repair costs.

“It’s astronomical, the cost of redoing roads and keeping them in good shape,” he said.

Prevailing wage is a major issue that needs to be reformed, said Bennett and Nelson. Bennett said prevailing wage has increased road construction costs federally and at the state level.

Freeborn County Engineer Sue Miller said the county faces a nearly $5 million yearly transportation funding deficit, despite bonding and passing wheelage and sales taxes.

County officials said last year that more than 100 miles of paved Freeborn County highways in the next 10 years were in need of funding, and officials have claimed some roads are in danger of returning to gravel if funding levels do not increase.

“We don’t want to turn blacktop roads into gravel,” Miller said.

Bennett, however, said she has heard from a majority of constituents who do not want the gas tax to be increased, and she plans to voice that at the Capitol. Bennett said she is hesitant to raise the gas tax.

“At this point, I am very hesitant to raise the gas tax for a number of reasons,” she said. “Trying to stay competitive with Iowa since we are so close to the border and the majority of constituents that I’ve heard from say we don’t want to raise any taxes in a time of surplus.”

Bennett said she understands there needs to be consistent transportation funding, and she plans on working with groups to ensure transportation funding needs are met.

Last week Bennett said she supports dedicating taxes on automobile tires and parts towards road and bridges.

Bonding, county program aid

Bennett told the commissioners her first focus this year is getting the budget done.

“I would expect there to be at least a small bonding bill,” she said.

Commissioner Chris Shoff told Sparks and Bennett that dollar for dollar, county program aid reduces bond levies.

“If you can increase local county aid, that’s a plus for us and it’s a plus for taxpayers,” he said.

Shoff presented the top legislative priorities for the Association of Minnesota Counties, including increasing county program aid, passing transportation funding that includes new revenue for roads, bridges and transits, county initiatives to reduce the incarceration of the mentally ill in local jails and redirecting existing county cost share dollars to efforts that increase mental health system capacity.

Other topics

Officials also discussed the death tax, Blazing Star Trail and other subjects.

Sparks and Bennett said the input of county leaders will have a major effect on this year’s legislative session.

“I think it’s a nice opportunity to sit down with the Freeborn County commissioners and department heads and really see their priorities for the upcoming legislative session,” Sparks said.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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