WORTHINGTON - Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson has made the three-hour trip to St. Paul each week for the past three weeks, and it wasn’t to see the Science Museum or Como Park.
Robinson is working with Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and Dist. 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, to prepare two bills, one to get funding to bring the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System to Worthington, and another to remove the collection limit on the city’s half-cent local option sales tax.
Legislators in St. Paul gave the city of Worthington approval to hold a referendum on the local option sales tax in 2005. Nearly 60 percent of Worthington residents voted in favor of the sales tax in the 2008 referendum.
The referendum allowed for the city to collect the special sales tax up to $6 million or for a maximum of 10 years, whichever came first, to fund construction of the Worthington Event Center and renovations at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center.
However, the city has seen increased purchases recently, averaging $70,000 a month in collections last year. At this rate, the city will reach the collection limit by this summer - 22 months before the 10 years are up.
The city wants to remove the maximum limit and collect taxes for the entire 10 years, ending in 2018. That additional income would fund quality of life improvements such as new or improved parks, sports facilities and lake quality improvements, that otherwise do not have a funding mechanism.
Robinson estimated the city could collect up to $1.5 million before the sales tax expires. He said approximately 60 percent of the money from the sales tax comes from Worthington residents.
The bill Robinson is working on with Weber and Hamilton will include a provision that if the city council approved the ordinance, citizens would have the opportunity to stop it with a reverse referendum.
“If there’s opposition from the public that they don’t want to extend the sales tax, there will be a vehicle for them to stop it through a petition process to force a referendum vote,” Robinson said.
If the legislature passes the measure, and the council approves it, the city will have to provide public hearings and notices. The council must perform three readings of the proposed ordinance as well. All of this could take the entire summer, according to Robinson, giving residents time to make a petition.
The city still intends to seek a new referendum once the sales tax expires in 2018 for a replacement local option sales tax, which once again will require approval from the capitol.
“The legislature will approve it at the end of its session in May 2019, so if we extend the current sales tax, we would seamlessly move through without having any stoppage of collecting,” Robinson said.
He said there wasn’t much precedent for such legislation, so he wasn’t sure how politicians in St. Paul would respond. The bill would likely be part of a larger tax bill, rather than a standalone piece of legislation.
Everyone in St. Paul agrees the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System needs to come to Worthington, but that isn’t the problem.
Robinson said while both houses and the Governor’s office are all in agreement that funding for the Lewis & Clark connection to Worthington is in their bill, the bonding bill is one of the last things that will be done in the legislative session in late May.
“It’s where all the bargaining chips are held; it’s the last piece of negotiation,” Robinson said.
Robinson, Hamilton and Weber don’t want to wait that long to get construction started. That’s why they’re working on standalone legislation to free up approximately $8 million in surplus funds from the money used on phase two construction from Magnolia to Adrian to be used on phase three. The extra money, which resulted from favorable bids, is locked up with a restriction that it can only be used for phase two construction.
Combined with $9 million in federal funds, Robinson said the money would get a majority of the construction done, but not all of it. The city and Lewis & Clark officials want to get the money as soon as possible in order to go out to bid early and get favorable bids.
“If it stays in the bonding bill and it passes, it would be late May, and we would lose much if not all of the 2017 construction season,” Robinson said. “The plans are done, and the easements are in place. So, if we had that $8 million, we could go out to bid within several weeks.”
If the standalone bill passes, the city would then need a small commitment from the state in the bonding bill to fully complete phase three. The pipeline extension is expected to be done by November 2018.
Robinson expected both the House and Senate versions of the two bills to be introduced next week. He will be back in St. Paul next week before he takes a temporary break from the state capitol.