A little for a lot? City voters will consider new half-cent local option sales tax
WORTHINGTON — It’s all about additional amenities.
That’s probably how supporters of the new half-cent local option sales tax referendum, which voters will consider on Election Day Nov. 6, would succinctly summarize the proposed measure. Anyone with questions about the local option sales tax plan will have the opportunity to attend an open meeting from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Worthington Fire Hall, at which people can come and gather information from city officials. Individuals may arrive and leave as they like.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson explained Wednesday to The Globe that residents will be voting on a half-cent local option sales tax referendum that will end after 15 years or the collection of $25 million, whichever comes first. The proposal comes just weeks after the Sept. 30 expiration of the previous local option sales tax that was scheduled to generate $6 million over 10 years, and funded renovations at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center and construction of the Worthington Event Center.
“As we were collecting revenue far in excess of what was projected, in 2017, we received permission from the state legislature to expand the budget from $6 million to $7.3 million,” Robinson said. “Of that, $1.2 million went to soccer fields (Buss Field improvements), and $100,000 went to seat replacement at Memorial Auditorium. We'd collected in excess of the $7.3 million at the time of Sept. 30.”
City elected officials and staff have worked together to identify priority projects that a new local option sales tax would fund. The goal was to arrive at a list that had something on it for as many people as people.
“We've identified what we call quality of life amenities,” Robinson said. “We want to make Worthington the city of choice to live and work. To do that, we want to enhance the amenities for the people that live here.
“The list of projects came from a series of meetings and listening sessions with various focus groups of people,” he continued. “We made an attempt to engage with a large cross-section of people in Worthington. There's something that came out of each of these meetings … and we took all of that feedback and arrived at this list of projects.”
The following projects will be funded should the local option sales tax referendum move forward:Outdoor aquatics center
The city is budgeting $4.5 million of the new sales proceeds to fund expanded outdoor aquatics center facilities. Robinson made it clear that the city doesn’t want to have any involvement outside of providing needed dollars.
“We don't want to be in the pool operating business,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we have a YMCA in Worthington that not only operates the aquatics center, but also administers youth sports for the city. We plan to continue to call on their expertise.”Field house
A total of $3 million is designated for a field house project — a large indoor recreation facility — at the current site of what’s commonly referred to as the “blue building” at the bottom of what’s known as “Campbell’s Soup Hill” on Second Avenue. The building would be renovated, and there will be an addition of between 4,000 and 5,000 square feet.
“That will accomodate a nice-size indoor soccer field, space for off-season indoor baseball and softball practice … and I can envision an indoor golf driving range,” Robinson listed. “We want to have a nice facility for families with pre-school-age children to go to and enjoy an indoor playground. … This is intended to replace the purpose of the old MC Fitness building.”Park and recreation improvements
The vision for this component of the sales tax revenue includes construction of a lakeside restaurant in Ehlers Park.
“The city would build and own the restaurant building, but lease the operations out to an operator,” Robinson said. “The city does not want to be in the restaurant business, but we want to provide a facility for someone to come in and operate it.”
As part of the $5.4 million tabbed for these improvements, the existing street could be moved closer to the nearby railroad tracks to enlarge Ehlers Park. This would be done once the city’s Parks and Recreation Department moves out of its First Avenue Southwest building.Lake water quality improvement
A total of $4.2 million has been budgeted in this area.
“in the past, the improvements to the lake have all focused on intercepting water flowing into the lake,” described Robinson. “Now, we want to focus on improvements within the lake basin itself. Some of those things include dredging Sunset Bay, aerators — different things that would actually enhance the water quality to the lake itself, given that's it's a shallow, prairie, mud-bottom lake.“10th Street Pavilion
City leaders are still in the process of developing a clear plan for the parking lot location that’s currently home to the downtown Farmers Market.
“We’re trying to keep our vision within a budget that the council is comfortable with,” Robinson said. “We’re looking at resurfacing that block, putting up public restrooms and … a building that could accommodate a lot of different activities -— outdoor weddings, some musical performances, a gathering place.”
A total of $700,000 in sales tax revenue collections is budgeted.Ice arena improvements
Improvements to the ice arena, for which $2.2 million is slated, “comes from council's desire to expand the ice time to nine or 10 months a year,” Robinson said. After all, the facility is home to more than just hockey.
“For kids that are in that middle school age group, the open skates they (arena) have are a great place for these kids to gather and a safe place for their parents to bring them,” he elaborated. “We want to improve the building so it can have a longer ice season — so we can economically keep ice in there during warmer months.”Summing up
Robinson points out that while all the planned projects carry a combined total cost of $20 million, $25 million in sales tax revenue collections are necessary to support a $20 million bond.
If approved by Worthington voters on Nov. 6, the plan next heads to the Minnesota Legislature for consideration.
“If we pass the referendum, we still need to get approval from the legislature,” Robinson sad. “That would likely be in 2019, and that means we’ll start with planning and designing phases in June 2019. Some of the projects will move forward in that phase immediately … it’s a lot easier to move forward when there’s already a facility in place.
“For the aquatics center, we already have concept plans of what that will look like, so we're ready to roll on that design phase. Same with the 10th Street Pavilion; we've done a lot of pre-planning. I would see those projects kicking off immediately in June, and the ice arena would hopefully be around that same path.”
The goal — in the event of referendum and state approval — is to begin sales tax revenue collection in January 2020, but the gap in time between now and then won’t slow down design processes. The referendum would result an additional sales tax of one penny for every $2 spent on taxable purchases. It’s also estimated that 40 percent of sales tax revenue comes from non-residents, Robinson said.
“Knowing that council members saw the last sales tax referendum as very successful in helping to fund amenities, they wanted to pursue re-imposing a new sales tax,” he added.