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Area projects still up in the air

Will Fountain Lake dredging have to get pushed back?

The fate of the Shell Rock River Watershed District’s half-percent sales tax had not been decided by Wednesday afternoon after a tax bill the proposal was included in was not passed in an initial special session.

Legislators were back in session Wednesday afternoon to pass the tax bill and other legislation that affects the area.

The sales tax is planned to be extended for either 15 years or until $15 million has been collected. Funding collected goes toward water quality improvements, including the dredging of Fountain Lake.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she thought the tax bill would pass the Senate Wednesday afternoon before it heads to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk. She described the tax bill as “a very good bill” with tax relief on Social Security and for farmers, students and families.

“It’s a good bill,” she said, noting $650 million in tax relief included in the bill is the largest tax relief package in at least 10 years.

“Tax relief — it’s an important thing,” she said.

The Watershed District voted last month to move forward with the first phase of the Fountain Lake dredging project, and began construction of the confined disposal facility in March that will house sediment collected from the bottom of Fountain Lake.

Administrator Brett Behnke said Wednesday morning he is concerned the project will have to be delayed if the sales tax extension does not pass.

“To wait for another year for the tax bill really sets back our project,” he said. Behnke described himself as “extremely nervous” about potential delays.

“We need this done, wrapped up.

“It will screech the dredging project to a screeching halt.”

Behnke said last month the district will consider a property tax levy in the fall after seeing what action takes place at the Legislature.

A renewal of the sales tax would provide funding for the next phase of the dredging project, which would remove 550,000 to 690,000 cubic yards of sediment from Edgewater Bay — one portion of Fountain Lake — to a confined disposal facility site north of Interstate 90.

The overall tax bill had initial plans of $660 million of tax breaks that shrunk by $10 million in last-minute negotiations. But new tax cuts would be created for college savings plans and tuition debt and first-time homebuyer accounts. The planned Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul would get a long-awaited exemption from state and local property taxes. In another move, the bill would also slash taxes on premium cigars — from $3.50 to 50 cents each — and remove inflation-adjusted increases for cigarette taxes that were approved in 2013.

After saying they would send a bill blocking cities from implementing their own minimum wage hikes or sick leave policies — which Dayon promised to veto — the GOP unveiled legislation Wednesday that was also loaded with measures meant to tempt the Democratic governor. That includes an extension of a new parental leave policy for state employees set to soon expire, ratification of several labor contracts and pension funding increases.

Dayton blasted the maneuver as “unconscionable” in a statement and said he would still veto the bill.

The tax bill also includes $15 million each year for government aid and $25.5 million per year for county program aid.

Albert Lea City Engineer Chad Adams said the package would cover a 2 percent increase in the city’s tax levy, noting he is happy with the proposal, though it does not return LGA funding to 2002 levels — a move that was advocated for by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

A state budget that is expected to be $46 billion must be passed this year to avoid a government shutdown.

The House and Senate have agreed to $300 million in transportation spending.

Education

The House and Senate have agreed to put $50 million to expand preschool offerings — a program that is currently utilized by Albert Lea and a top priority for Gov. Mark Dayton. The budget also pays to increase the state’s per-pupil funding formula by 2 percent in each of the next two years.

“We are pleased with the education bill that passed,” said Albert Lea Superintendent Mike Funk. “It added more funding for schools so that we could keep up with the cost of inflation, and fully funded our voluntary pre-K program. It also makes permanent a compensatory pilot program that the Legislature previously had to renew every two years. Since this and voluntary pre-K are now permanent, teaching positions aligned to this funding will not have to be cut.”

Bennett said she supports funding included in the bill, as well as the expansion of early childhood scholarships and the creation of a new scholarship grant program. She also spoke highly of a revamping of teacher licensure under the bill.

“It just makes much more sense than our convoluted system,” she said. “It’s a really good reform, and it’s going to help our local schools.” The changes will address the state’s teacher shortage, and increase transparency, she said.

Albert Lea Area Schools was one of 74 districts across the state that received funding for the pre-k program last year. The local funding, for about $819,000 last year, paid for 100 preschool students. The program was for eligible 4-year-olds in the attendance areas of Hawthorne and Halverson elementary schools.

The measure still had to pass the Senate Wednesday afternoon before it could be sent to Dayton — who has pledged to sign the bill, Bennett said.

Bonding

A bonding bill had not been introduced in the House or Senate as of Wednesday afternoon. Extending sanitary sewer and water service to the Stables area north of Albert Lea is included in a $995 million draft bill that has been introduced. A $7.4 million Riverland Community College request to relocate truck driving and collision programs from Austin to Albert Lea and to integrate the programs into shared spaces with auto service programs is not.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said he is disappointed the Riverland Community College project and Blazing Star Trail work to connect the trail from Albert Lea to Hayward was not included in the bill, and is confused why the project has still not been funded after more than 10 years, while other trail projects across the state have been included in bonding bills.

He expressed frustration that the projects, as well as other projects across the state, were not included this year with a $1.6 billion state surplus.

Bennett said the package would include a large amount of funding for transportation. She noted the Stables project is included in the bill, and said she was disappointed the Riverland project was not included.

Bennett said she will strongly advocate for the Riverland project again in 2018.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.


About Sam Wilmes

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

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