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Another side to sports complex, MERIT?Center debate

October 18, 2012
Marshall Independent

To the editor:

Because of extensive newspaper coverage and because of the many letters to the editor, you are probably well aware of the fact that voters in Marshall will be asked to vote on two important ballot questions this November. The first ballot question is entitled "CONSIDERATION OF SALES TAXES TO FUND EMERGENCY RESPONSE FACILITIES" and the second ballot question is entitled "CONSIDERATION OF SALES TAX TO FUND REGIONAL AMATEUR SPORTS FACILITIES."

On Friday, the Independent will publish its Voters' Guide. One of the questions in the Voters' Guide is, "Do you support the construction of an amateur sports facility and expansion of the MERIT training center, both of which would be subsidized by local and out-of-town taxpayers?" Since I am running for City Council, I was asked to send in a written response to that question. My response to that question was too long to be included in the Voters' Guide. I discussed the situation with the editor of the newspaper and it was decided that the best thing for me to do was to put my response in a letter to the editor.

First of all, the easy answer for a politician to give to the above Voters' Guide question is yes. It is usually easier for a politician to say YES than it is to say NO, especially to the question of whether or not to spend taxpayer money. However, public officials need to remember that they have a solemn duty to spend taxpayer money wisely. The total initial cost of these two proposed projects is approximately $20 million. Some of the initial costs are being funded by private donations. However, the lion's share of the costs will be borne by local taxpayers.

My approach to answering this question is the same approach I would use if elected to the City Council. That approach is to do research, ask tough questions, and become fully informed regarding the issue before I make a decision. After taking those steps, I would then try to use common sense in an effort to make an informed decision that is in the best interest of our community.

I would first like to address the amateur sports facility issue. The initial cost of this project is approximately $13 million. In addition to that cost, taxpayer dollars will be used to subsidize the annual operating costs of that facility. As a fiscal conservative, I believe that taxes in Minnesota are already too high. Any additional tax burdens on our citizens should be highly scrutinized. It should be noted that both projects will be primarily financed with sales taxes. Many people would argue that the sales tax is a regressive tax because low-income families pay a higher percentage of their disposable income on sales tax than rich people do. Thus, it is more of a burden for low-income families.

Supporters of the sports facility emphasize the economic impact that tournaments have on the City. If we add this new facility, how many of the existing tournaments or other events are simply going to move from our present facilities to the new facility? Events that end up moving from our present facilities to the new one will not increase the economic impact on our community. The economic impact of existing events being held in Marshall is not relevant to the decision on whether to build a new facility. Only the increase in economic activity over present levels is relevant and should be considered in making this important decision.

In looking at a budgeted income statement for the sports facility, I noticed that facility ice rentals are projected to be approximately 86 percent of the total revenues and tournament revenues are expected to be approximately 6 percent of total revenues. It is also estimated that there will be a $126,000 annual operating loss that will be covered by the food and beverage tax.

Another question to consider is whether we really need an additional sports facility. We have the SMSU Regional Events Center, the SMSU R/A facility, the SMSU gymnasium, numerous school district facilities, the Lyon County facility and plenty of city-operated sports facilities. How many communities the size of Marshall have that many sports facilities?

Next, I would like to address the MERIT Center issue. I would like to strongly emphasize that I do favor public safety training. Government needs to make sure that law enforcement personnel, fire fighters, etc., receive necessary training. However, I have a number of questions regarding the MERIT Center project. First of all, voters need to realize that they are voting on a new vehicle training facility. The proposed new facility does not have anything to do with the fire and rescue training that already is being conducted at the present MERIT facility.

The question for the voters is whether or not the government should spend $7 million ($1 million state money and $6 million local tax dollars) for a driving course, training simulators, skid pad, and classrooms/offices. In 2010 we were told the project would cost $4,280,000 and that the cost would be split 50/50 between local taxpayers and the State. It appears that cost estimates and funding estimates had to be drastically revised. Under the latest proposal, it shows that new classrooms/offices will cost $1.75 million ($750,000 previous estimate) and that training simulators will cost $575,000 ($380,000 previous estimate).

One important item for consideration is this: Why are we not partnering on this project with other communities in Southwest Minnesota? The MERIT Center is a regional training center for the Southwest Region. If it truly is a regional training center, why are the taxpayers of Marshall being asked to pay the lion's share of the costs? Is that fair? Shouldn't other communities in the Southwest Region be asked to help pay for this new vehicle training facility? In doing research, I discovered some regional public safety training facilities in Minnesota where counties, cities, and other government entities have partnered together. The South Metro training facility is a collaborative effort of the cities of Eden Prairie, Edina, and Bloomington and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport police department. Another training center has members such as the cities of Carver, Elko, Jordan, New Prague, Prior Lake, Savage and Shakopee. There are twenty-two counties in the Southwest Region. Why doesn't the City of Marshall partner with other communities in our region to finance a training facility? If this truly is a necessary training facility which will provide benefits to twenty-two counties and all of the communities in those counties, why are they not helping to pay for the cost of the facility? It is my understanding that the City has never formally asked other communities or counties to partner with us in the ownership of the MERIT Center vehicle training facility.

Some will argue that not just the citizens of Marshall will pay for this new facility. They will state that out-of-town visitors who shop in Marshall will also help pay for it. That is true. However, I strongly believe that the citizens of Marshall will end of paying the lion's share of the cost. Wouldn't a better solution to the funding problems be to ask counties and other communities within the Southwest Region to share the cost with us? When I was reading Marshall's application for a grant I noticed that the cities of Redwood Falls, Cottonwood, Granite Falls, Minneota and Tracy had passed resolutions asking the Legislature to authorize the voters of Marshall to vote on the proposed sales tax increase. It is unfortunate that those communities did not also ask the Legislature for authorization so that they too could increase their sales tax in order to help pay for the MERIT Center and the Regional Sports Center.

I have been told that Minnesota West is responsible for the operation of the MERIT Center. They provide the majority of the training that takes place there. Why not locate the proposed vehicle training facility at the Pipestone Campus of Minnesota West? Maybe Minnesota West and the City of Pipestone could pay for the cost of the new center instead of the citizens of Marshall. Rather than spending $1.75 million for new classrooms/offices, perhaps the classrooms and offices on the Pipestone Campus could be used. Remember, the faculty at Minnesota West will be providing the training. And, if need be, we could share the costs with them by partnering with them and other communities in the ownership of the facilities. One of the best ways to reduce the cost of government is for government entities to partner together in activities.

As I stated before, government should provide adequate safety training for its employees. However, the questions that need to be answered are: (1) Do we need a regional vehicle training facility?; (2) Do taxpayers need to spend $7 million for such a facility?; (3) Where should the facility be located?; and (4) Who should pay for it? I believe that there should be further discussions regarding this project. This is a multi-million dollar issue and we want to make sure we get it right.

Two taxes will be used to finance these projects. The .5 percent tax is a sales tax, will be used for capital expenditures (construction costs), and is set to expire in 15 years. The 1.5 percent tax is a food and beverage tax, will be used for yearly operating expenditures, and will expire at the end of 30 years. If either or both projects are approved by the voters, the projected increase in local taxes will be approximately $1.73 million per year ($1,279,668/year from the .5 percent sales tax and $448,558/year from the 1.5 percent food & beverage tax). The $448,558/year tax proceeds will be used to subsidize the operating costs of the two facilities. Again, these are only estimates. The actual amounts could be higher or lower than the projected amounts.

It is my understanding that if only one of the ballot questions passes, the sales tax and the food & beverage tax will still go into effect. There will not be a reduction of the tax rates. Since these tax revenues are restricted funds, they can only be used for these projects. Any excess funds from these taxes cannot be used by the city for other projects or activities.

My personal opinion is that we are headed for a period of very high inflation. It has been said that inflation is the cruelest tax. In these uncertain times, the prudent thing for government to do is to hold down spending.

Economic development efforts, safety training, and providing recreational facilities for our citizens are all worthy goals. However, I believe that there are too many unanswered questions regarding these two projects. Because of the serious concerns that I have stated above, I cannot support the increase in local taxes to pay for these two facilities. This is not an easy decision to make nor may it prove to be a very popular decision. As public officials, decisions that we make should not be based upon what is easiest or what is popular. Our job is to become informed and to make decisions that we believe are in the public's best interest.

I was asked by the Independent to indicate whether I supported the ballot questions and this letter is my response. There appears to be a well-orchestrated effort to convince voters to vote yes on these two ballot questions. We have all seen the many letters to the editor. These two ballot questions involve the raising and spending of millions of taxpayer dollars. It is very important that the voters have the opportunity to hear both sides of these issues before they make a decision on how to cast their votes.

Glenn M. Bayerkohler




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