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County board sets public hearing for new tax, discusses road plan

BEMIDJI — The groundwork for a proposed $16 million roads plan was laid out by the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners Tuesday afternoon, and it may include a new tax for county residents.

The board scheduled a public hearing for July 2, when citizens can voice concerns over the possible adoption of a wheelage tax, which would cost auto owners $10 per vehicle, per year. The tax, if adopted, would raise an estimated $340,000 annually, according to County Administrator Kay Mack, and would have to be approved by the board each year.

That figure — $340,000 —would cover the debt service resulting from $8 million in capital improvement bonds the county may seek to help fund road projects. The additional $8 million would be taken from the county’s reserve fund, which currently sits at $40.8 million, or about eight months worth of expenditures.

In its regular meeting, the board also passed a motion requiring Mack to investigate the economic feasibility of the $16 million roads plan. District 1 Commissioner Jack Frost said the county has “$80 million” in needed repairs to roads.

“I think we’re in desperate times as far as how we pay for those roads,” Mack said. “I think the county probably has been awfully shy about it for a whole lot of years.”

District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson agreed, saying it was time to “step up to the plate.”

Passed in April as a provision included in the legislature’s transportation finance bill, the wheelage tax represents a new money-making opportunity for Minnesota counties. Previously, only counties in the Twin Cities metro area could take advantage of the tax, which prior to this year cost $5 per vehicle, per year.

“The legislature acknowledged that rural counties have roads,” Mack quipped.

In 2012 more than $5.6 million in revenues were raised for counties in which the tax was adopted.

Roads projects last year cost the county just under $8 million, and will make a dent of just more than $8 million this year, according to figures made available by county engineer Bruce Hasbargen.

Hasbargen previously said  Beltrami County roads are in dire need of not just repair, but in some cases, replacement.

The board must adopt the tax by August 2, according to Mack, and it wouldn’t go into effect until January.

District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick, who at first voiced opposition to the tax, spoke in support of it — as long as it came as part of a package that includes bonding money, and a subtraction from county coffers.

“We’ve been sandbagging money in our reserve accounts, and not taking care of our roads,” he said. “It’s time we do something about it.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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