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Food tax vote tonight

The F-M Convention and Visitors Bureau's proposed quarter-cent food tax is likely to gain Fargo City Commission approval tonight, but not without a fight.

The F-M Convention and Visitors Bureau's proposed quarter-cent food tax is likely to gain Fargo City Commission approval tonight, but not without a fight.

Commissioners Jean Rayl, Thomas Lane and Mayor Bruce Furness are leaning in favor of the tax, although none will commit until first hearing what the CVB has to say.

Commissioner John Cosgriff said he's unlikely to support the tax, concerned the CVB might not be able to live up to its promises to boost tourism in the F-M area.

"This (tax) is for tourism ... however we define tourism," Cosgriff said. "This thing is just an open checkbook."

Commissioner Rob Lynch said he supports the tax in concept, but said he'll only support it if there's some assurance that West Fargo and Moorhead also will, since the CVB is a regional group promoting the entire area.


It's doubtful both cities will do that.

Tonight is the second time the CVB has come before commissioners to request the tax. Previously, the CVB suggested a half-cent tax on restaurant food sales in Fargo but scaled back after commissioners tabled the issue and raised questions about accountability.

This time around, the CVB will ask for the tax over a 10-year period, instead of an indefinite length of time.

After that, the CVB could go back to commissioners and request the tax be continued -- if it could prove the first $4.5 million yielded positive results for the F-M area.

Revenue from the tax -- about $450,000 per year -- would be spent primarily on regional tourism marketing.

Rayl said she probably will support the tax since it's important for F-M to promote itself as a destination.

"I don't think we'll ever be like Disneyland, but we can do better than we're doing now," she said.

In fact, Rayl said she would have supported the tax at a half-cent, which would have given the CVB $900,000 a year and would have almost doubled its current budget.


Lane, Furness and Lynch say they are more comfortable with the tax now that it's not as high and has an end-date.

"I like the direction it's going in," Lane said. "I like the reduction, and I like the sunset clause."

Cosgriff said he's not comforted by the fact that the CVB is asking for less money. In fact, he said that worries him just as much.

In the CVB's initial tax proposal, it stated that an additional $500,000 would be needed for efforts to have impact.

"The other side (not asking for enough money) is just as damaging," Cosgriff said.

It's not clear if Lynch will get his questions answered about West Fargo and Moorhead tonight.

CVB Executive Director Cole Carley said he has talked with West Fargo about coming on board and remains hopeful, but the decision lies with them.

West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern said it's unlikely West Fargo will bite.


"We like our own identity," Mattern said. "I personally see some value in joining the CVB, but right now, I strongly feel our residents want to keep that independence."

The F-M CVB plans to approach the Moorhead City Council about a food tax similar to what is proposed in Fargo. Ultimately though, a tax of that nature in Minnesota will require state legislative approval first.

CVB and Moorhead officials also have talked about the possibility of the city increasing its lodging tax to 3 percent to show the city's commitment to tourism. A lodging tax increase would only require city approval.

If Fargo commissioners do approve the new tax tonight, there's still a chance the issue wouldn't be settled. Fargo resident and City Commission candidate Mike Williams believes this tax shouldn't be passed without a public vote.

Even though North Dakota law allows cities to apply up to a 1 percent food and beverage tax in addition to a 2 percent lodging tax, Fargo's Home Rule Charter says no city "sales or use tax" can be imposed unless approved by 60 percent of the city's voters.

Fargo City Attorney Garylle Stewart said the food tax is different from a "sales or use" tax, and commissioners should be able to make the decision if they want.

Williams said he'll wait to see what happens tonight, and then decide whether he'll attempt to get the issue on the ballot for Fargo voters.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mary Jo Almquist at (701) 241-5531

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