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With sales tax vote, Clay County voters decide how to pay for new jail

Rendering of proposed Clay County Law Enforcement Center. View from southeast.1 / 2
Rendering of proposed Clay County Correctional Facility. Aerial view looking southwest.2 / 2

MOORHEAD—Construction of a $52 million Clay County Jail and law enforcement center will move forward even if voters reject a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 8 ballot.

It depends on if they want to pay for it through a sales tax or through a property tax increase, county leaders say.

Leaders say the project will move forward no matter what because the state has mandated that Clay County upgrade what is the oldest jail in Minnesota.

"We're concerned (voters) think if they vote no, it's voting against the jail project, but the jail project has already been approved and is moving forward," said Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell. "The yes or no vote is simply how to pay for it."

"We want to make sure voters know that a yes vote supports a sales tax and if they vote no it would be voting for a property tax increase," he said.

Most community groups and residents have shown support for the sales tax measure, given the alternative of an increase in property taxes.

The sales tax has received the backing of the Moorhead Business Association, the public affairs committee of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, groups representing Clay County deputies and Moorhead police officers, and farmers in the area, Campbell said.

"We have not heard of anyone [in opposition] and I keep asking," he said. "It just seems like the vast majority of the people, they are understanding of the need for this project, and the best way to pay for it is a sales tax instead of seeing property taxes go up."

The state Department of Revenue has determined an estimated $1.6 million to $1.7 million per year can be raised with a sales tax, which could run up to 20 years. Of that amount, perhaps 20 to 25 percent would be paid by people living outside of Clay County who buy items here.

Clay County does not currently have a sales tax. Minnesota levies a 6.875 percent state sales tax. The extra half-cent would bring it to 7.375 percent. State and local sales taxes total 7.5 percent in Fargo and West Fargo.

The Clay County sales tax would not apply to clothing, groceries or vehicles.

"We would prefer to support a sales tax over the eventual likelihood of a property tax," said Anna Hanson, president of the Moorhead Business Association. "For us, we wanted to educate people. If you vote against the sales tax, in essence you're voting for a property tax increase."

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said she believes all City Council members support the sales tax in order to avoid a property tax increase.

"There is really no other answer to it," Williams said. "We're the oldest jail in Minnesota and it's not up to standards. I think even the retailers understand it, and understand why it's necessary."

The Clay County Jail, which opened 1966, holds 66 prisoners, and the nearby annex holds 30 minimum-security inmates. The county now sends an average of 45 inmates a day to other jails and pays an average of $52 per day per prisoner sent out, or about $1 million per year.

Construction of the jail, which will be just west of the courthouse and social services building at 807 11th St. N., will start in spring 2017 and take about 18 months to complete.

The $32 million jail will be about 65,301 square feet, with 206 beds and space on the site for an additional two pods of 60 beds each.

The $16 million, 58,455-square-foot law enforcement center would be built north of the courthouse on land now being cleared of bought-out homes, which cost the county about $3 million and was figured into the total project cost.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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