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Published July 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

Fargo voters overwhelmingly approve half-cent sales tax for flood control

It was a light turnout for Fargo’s special election Tuesday, but those who did vote overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of raising the city’s sales tax one-half percent to pay for permanent flood protection.

By: Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

It was a light turnout for Fargo’s special election Tuesday, but those who did vote overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of raising the city’s sales tax one-half percent to pay for permanent flood protection.

In complete but unofficial results, 90.7 percent, or 11,520 voters, voted for the tax, while 9.3 percent, or 1,181 people, voted against it.

Mayor Dennis Walaker, reached by phone Tuesday night, seemed stunned by the news, calling it “very, very fulfilling.”

“I’m ecstatic. … Apparently the public feels the same as the rest of us as far as needing to show a positive process to Congress and the Corps of Engineers that we are serious about this whole deal,” Walaker said.

“It’s unbelievable. I’ve got goosebumps,” said City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn.

“The main message is the people want us to get this done; get started as soon as possible,” likely with home buyouts, Piepkorn said.

“I think that will send a message to the feds that we’re very serious about this,” said City Commissioner Tim Mahoney.

The vote comes on the heels of this spring’s record flooding in Fargo-Moorhead, where the Red River climbed to a record 40.82 feet, eclipsing the 1897 mark of 40.1 feet and the 1997 flood, which at 39.57 feet had been thought to be a 100-year flood event.

The tax measure will bump the city’s 6.5 percent sales tax up to 7 percent beginning Jan. 1 to pay for projects to protect against floods by the Red River and its tributaries.

About $200 million is expected to be raised by the tax over 20 years.

The measure required a 60 percent supermajority to pass, but on Tuesday, that was more of a speed bump than a barrier.

There is no definite flood protection plan yet, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying several alternatives, including a $909 million diversion of the Red River around the metro area through Minnesota, and a $625 million levee plan that would include Fargo’s Southside Flood Control Project.

“The hope is in 10 years, we’re done. And that seems like an awful lot of time to people, but 10 years will go by in a heartbeat,” said City Commissioner Brad Wimmer.

Wimmer said people must have agreed that a sales tax would be easier to pay than special assessments or property taxes.

“That would have been a much harder pill to swallow for the citizenry of Fargo,” Wimmer said.

Election results include 18 precincts: 16 precincts for Election Day, and two precincts for the results of early voting and absentee ballots, said Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir.

The 12,705 ballots cast – including four blank ones – made for one of the lightest turnouts in recent history, with only a 1992 vote for a half-percent sales tax for water plants and streets garnering fewer voters at 8,577.

It was on the city’s south side, where miles of clay levees, Hesco barriers and sandbag dikes were thrown up during this spring’s flood fight that the measure had heavy support.

Nearly 95.5 percent of the voters at Calvary United Methodist Church, which served as the polling site for Precinct 27-04, voted for the measure.

Other polling sites where strong support turned out were:

  • Riverview Place, Precinct 27-05, 95 percent

  • First Assembly of God Church, Precinct 41-02, 94.4 percent

Atonement Lutheran Church, Precinct 46-02, 95.3 percent.

Still, support was so broad that the polling site with the lowest percentage voting for the tax was the Fargo Civic Center, with 75.75 percent of voters from Precinct 21-02 approving it.

Slightly more than

90.4 percent of absentee voters supported the measure. But among the 1,630 early voters, nearly 94 percent backed of the tax.

“When we ask the right question, the voters respond,” said City Commissioner Mike Williams.

Williams said the ultimate solution will require flexibility and multiple fixes, but will be worth it to avoid the high cost of federal flood insurance.

The City Commission will canvass the vote Monday morning.

Even as this spring’s floodwaters were subsiding, politicians on both sides of the river were working to build a consensus to earn the favor of Congress when it comes to funding for flood control.

A hallmark of that effort was a historic meeting May 5 in Washington, D.C., that included local, state and federal officials and members of the Minnesota and North Dakota congressional delegations.

The tax plan garnered broad support through the Coalition for Protecting Fargo’s Future, which included politicians and business groups. No group came out in formal opposition to the tax measure.

On Monday, former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer and several Fargo businessmen and politicians kicked off a lobbying effort for a Red River diversion through North Dakota.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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