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Our View: Duluth votes to fix streets, start fresh

Rick McKee/Cagle Cartoons

Duluth voters really, really want their pockmarked, tire-flattening, suspension-busting, teeth-rattling roads repaired: On Election Day Tuesday, they overwhelmingly endorsed a plan pitched by Mayor Emily Larson to pour approximately $8 million a year into street improvements. The hefty, responsible commitment of funds compares to the just-not-keeping-up $2.8 million now being spent per year and is expected to be enough to more than triple the number of miles of roads repaired annually, from about three miles currently to 16 to 18 miles.

By a whopping 3-to-1 margin, voters endorsed a half-percent sales tax in Duluth for street improvements — and only for street improvements. If passed by the Minnesota Legislature, the restriction would be written into state law.

Duluth hasn’t had a dedicated funding source for street improvements since 2009 when a slice of Fond-du-Luth Casino profits that had been going to the city stopped being shared.

Find the money elsewhere in the city budget, vocal critics repeated in their opposition to the new tax. Actually, the mayor is doing that, too. Her proposal calls for cutting city spending by $2 million in 2018, or 2.54 percent, which would make available $1 million of the $8 million total for streets.

The new tax promises to be painless. We’re talking a nickel on $10 in purchases. But not on purchases of basic necessities like groceries or clothing. Like other sales taxes in Minnesota, those things would be exempt from the tax. If they weren’t, lower-income residents would be disproportionately burdened.

Perhaps most attractive in the sales-tax proposal is that all users of Duluth's streets would contribute to their upkeep: visitors, commuters, and residents alike. Using property taxes instead would nick just Duluth residents — and it would nick us hard.

No matter how painless it would be, how much it makes sense, and how enthusiastically Duluthians endorsed it, Duluth’s sales tax for streets now faces an uphill battle in St. Paul. The support of Duluth’s business community could go a long way toward winning over the Republican-controlled Legislature. But our business community, led by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, has said it may not support the tax at the Legislature if the City Council keeps pushing for mandatory paid time off for Duluth workers, even part-timers and interns. A so-called earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance could prove burdensome to businesses, especially smaller ones, the business community has argued, and it would further entrench Duluth’s reputation as not as business-friendly as we could be.

Duluth voters did their part for the street plan Tuesday. Now it’s up to the City Council, mayor, business leaders, and others to work together and to make good on what very clearly is a voter mandate.

Also Tuesday, voters picked a positive fresh start for the Duluth School Board, rejecting doomsday-trumpeting incumbents in favor of elected leaders who said they wouldn’t ignore the district’s very real challenges, including financial ones, but committed to working together toward solutions. It’s on the new board now to do just that. They can be held accountable, even if the task is thankless and won’t be easy.

Tuesday’s winners deserve our congratulations just as much as those who came up short can be thanked for their participation, for putting themselves out there, and for enriching the conversations a community has to have in order to succeed and thrive.

Elections are important. Local elections are perhaps the most impactful. May the impacts from Tuesday be positive for Duluth and our region.

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