A SMART proposal
With only one meeting scheduled to take place in December, the Becker County Board of Commissioners made that meeting count on Tuesday.
In a lengthy session, the board covered everything from a State of the County address to unveiling plans for a proposed new half-cent sales tax that would pay for up to $20 million in county transportation projects over a 10-year period.
The proposal, known as SMART — Safe, Multi-Modal, Active, Responsible Transportation — would use a projected half-cent, countywide sales tax to fund county, city and township transportation projects of up to $20 million over a 10-year period.
About half of that $20 million would be used "to advance the Becker County 5-Year High Plan," while the other half would be used for other projects, said County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen, who was one of the people that sat on the committee to develop the project.
Commissioner Barry Nelson pointed out to audience members that the SMART proposal was a tentative one only — "it has not yet been approved by the board," he added.
County Administrator Jack Ingstad noted that the purpose of Tuesday's presentation was not to ask the board for any decisions, but to give the commissioners "something to react to" — in other words, a starting point for future discussion.
The proposal laid out at the meeting included a preliminary cost estimate for $27.2 million in SMART road projects.
The projects would fall under five different categories: Safety improvements; reconstruction; pavement overlays; conversion of high-maintenance gravel roads to paved ones; and multi-modal projects like Safe Routes to Schools and Complete Streets.
Safe Routes to School projects would include pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, signals, shoulder modifications and construction of pedestrian/bike bridges over certain roadways.
Complete Streets projects would involve construction of roadways that incorporate alternative modes of transportation such as biking and walking paths.
Because the proposed projects would exceed the maximum available funds by about $7 million, Nelson said, "We've got a lot of cutting to do."
Commissioner Ben Grimsley questioned whether the county might start with implementing a smaller sales tax, rather than assessing the full half-cent tax all at once.
He also said he would be much more in favor of a full half-cent tax if it would offset the need to use county property tax funding for road projects.
"That would be of benefit to every person in the county," Grimsley said.
Commissioner John Okeson pointed out that the SMART program was proposed, in part, for just that reason.
"We have a lot of old, old county roads out there that are in bad shape," he said. "This is our way of addressing some of those issues without using county tax levy dollars."
Becker County Board Chairman Don Skarie referred to the SMART program proposal in his 2013 State of the County address, which he presented earlier in the morning.
"It is hoped that, if adopted, the new revenue (from the SMART tax), of which more than 40 percent comes from visitors to the county, will greatly improve our transportation infrastructure and ultimately reduce the need for additional property levy dollars," Skarie said.
Skarie's address also included references to the county's 2014 budget of $42 million, "which will improve county services while also decreasing the property tax levy for our taxpayers."
"Becker County's mission is to deliver quality public services to all citizens in a fiscally responsible and customer friendly manner," Skarie said. "Public safety, human services and highways account for nearly 70 percent of our county spending. We put our money where our priorities are."
Also that morning, the commissioners hosted a Christmas Tea for county employees, and approved the 2014 county property tax levy.
The total county property tax levy for 2013, payable in 2014, was set at $18,549,962, which marks a decrease of .23 percent from the previous year, Tangen noted.
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