Our view: Welcome another way to weigh in on county's proposed sales tax

On an issue as important as enacting a new half-percent sales tax -- a tax that'd be paid by nearly all shoppers in St. Louis County to help pay for road and bridge repairs countywide -- the public deserves every opportunity to weigh in and be heard.

Keene Creek bridge work
The final two beams are swung into place on Aug. 7 on the new Highland Street bridge over Keene Creek. The bridge was part of a $10.7 million project in the wake of the 2012 floods to rebuild Highland Street and 57th Avenue West, which together make up County State Aid Highway 89. The roads reopened Nov. 7, though some finishing details like sidewalks and landscaping will be done in the spring. (Photo courtesy of St. Louis County)

On an issue as important as enacting a new half-percent sales tax - a tax that’d be paid by nearly all shoppers in St. Louis County to help pay for road and bridge repairs countywide - the public deserves every opportunity to weigh in and be heard.
“There needs to be additional public discussion,” Don Ness, the mayor of Duluth, the biggest city in the county and the retail-rich city where the bulk of the tax would be collected but not where it would be spent since so few county roads and bridges are here, posted on his Facebook page last week.
“Holding public hearings on a weekday morning is not public discussion,” the mayor opined.
Yet that’s exactly what the St. Louis County Board originally scheduled: two public hearings, one last Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning in Duluth and another Tuesday morning at 9:50 at Hibbing City Hall.
But after only a few private citizens attended last week’s hearing, and none of them clearly critical of the tax, board members did right by concerned county constituents and added a third public hearing, this one in the late afternoon when more working people can attend. The third public hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1, a week from tomorrow, in the Hermantown Public Safety Building.
“For the working folks, some of them, to go to a public hearing in the morning, they’d have to take time off from work. This way they’ll have a better chance of being there, (and) I believe a healthier debate is good,” Commissioner Pete Stauber, who put forward the resolution for the third hearing, told the News Tribune Opinion page last week. “It’s an important decision, and we want to make sure the public is aware of the need. As a county we believe that part of public safety is safe traveling and safe roads.”
Yes, he said the county wants to make sure the public is aware of the need, not that the County Board wants residents’ views before deciding whether to enact the half-percent tax on everything purchased in the county with the exception of food and clothing. A majority of commissioners already appear to support the new tax, arguing the county should be spending about $40 million a year to maintain safe and smooth highways and bridges but is now able to spend only about $17 million annually; the new tax would add an estimated $10.5 million that’s sorely needed. What’s more, supporters argue, about a third of the new sales tax would be paid by shoppers from outside the county who use county roads, too, rather than taxing only people who live here.
But even if the tax is a foregone conclusion, important questions and concerns can be raised Tuesday and next Monday. Is the tax really necessary at 0.5 percent? Why not 0.3 percent or some other amount? The Minnesota Legislature is expected to pass a transportation bill this session; it certainly will alter the county’s transportation funding needs and the amount county officials feel they need to collect with this tax. Why not wait until after the legislative session to enact the tax when its size can be better calculated, as the News Tribune argued in an editorial last week in which commissioners were urged not to rush this new tax into existence?
Also, will this new tax drive shoppers out of Duluth? The sales tax here would increase to 7.875 percent while the sales tax in Douglas County in Northwestern Wisconsin would remain at just 5.5 percent. A short drive across the bridge will save consumers serious coin, especially on pricier purchases. Why wouldn’t they shop in Douglas County instead of St. Louis County?
Before being blindsided by yet another new tax - as needed as the money it would raise may be - county residents can do themselves a favor and attend one of the remaining public hearings. They can ask questions, raise concerns or offer support if they feel the new sales tax is the fair way to go.
We can all take advantage of the opportunities to weigh in that we’re being given, including the later-in-the-day opportunity that’s sure to fit better into more schedules.

Be heard
Two more public hearings are scheduled as St. Louis County commissioners consider enacting a new half-percent sales tax to pay for highway and bridge repair work.
They are at:
* 9:50 a.m. Tuesday at Hibbing City Hall
* 5 p.m., Monday, Dec. 1 in the Hermantown Public Safety Building
The public also can address commissioners before they’re expected to vote on the sales tax at their Dec. 2 meeting in the county courthouse in Duluth at 9:30 a.m.
Commissioners also can be contacted by email at or by telephone. Each commissioner’s phone number is listed at

Central Entrance signal work
Signal work as part of a $2 million St. Louis County project to improve traffic flow at Central Entrance and Arlington Avenue in Duluth is completed in June 2013. Next year, St. Louis County Public Works is expected to resurface Arlington between Trinity and Arrowhead roads. (Photo courtesy of St. Louis County)

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