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Fargo approves ballot language for tax vote

FARGO - The Fargo City Commission voted 5-0 on Monday to approve a resolution and ballot measure that - if it passes muster with voters - would add a half-cent to the city's sales tax to help pay for permanent flood protection measures.

Commissioners held the quick vote to allow needed public notice before a June 30 special election.

The measure must be approved by 60 percent or more of voters. If the tax is approved and all deadlines are met, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2010, bringing the city's total sales tax to 7 percent, officials said.

Meanwhile, Cass County's home rule charter doesn't give it the option to seek a sales tax vote until 2010, County Administrator Bonnie Johnson said.

Cass must look to federal agencies and the state Legislature for much of its home buyout and road repair funds in the months ahead, she said.

At the same time, Moorhead and Clay County are counting on the Minnesota Legislature to approve flood assistance and bonding bills to pay for buyouts and other flood mitigation measures, officials said.

Fargo Commissioner Brad Wimmer said the sentiment he's heard is, "We need to get something done. We don't want to go through this again," referring to this spring's desperate race to protect against record Red River flooding.

The sales tax is expected to generate roughly $200 million over 20 years to help pay for a range of flood-control measures.

The resolution says the goal of any project should be for 500-year flood protection for the city.

City Commissioner Mike Williams got water retention added to the list of items the tax could pay for. But he dropped a request to have water delivery projects added to the resolution after Mayor Dennis Walaker balked.

"To me, this resolution should be strictly for flood protection," Walaker said.

Johnson said Cass commissioners want to meet with the Fargo City Commission - likely May 18 - to discuss flood mitigation.

Clay County Administrator Vijay Sethi, Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger and Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said Minnesota law makes it difficult to get a local sales tax put into place.

Perhaps two to three dozen cities or counties have sales taxes, Redlinger said.

Long-term flood control will depend on what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says is the best plan, Sethi said.

Minnesota "has a long history of supporting projects, especially flood-control projects, through the bonding program," Redlinger said.

He anticipates that funding would come in phases.

"(Gov. Tim Pawlenty) has told us that he would be supportive of the state funding major portions of permanent flood protection in Moorhead, just like they did in East Grand Forks," Voxland said.

Voxland said local lawmakers are working to get flood mitigation funds in these last few weeks of the legislative session.