Council Closer to Approving Sales Tax Ballot Language

The Albert Lea City Council may approve final ballot language to request an extension to the Shell Rock River Watershed District’s half-percent sales tax April 11.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said the council could approve final ballot language at its next meeting, as councilors are coming closer to finalizing an agreement.

The council heard public opinion on the issue Monday night at a public forum.

Randy Erdman, former Albert Lea mayor and city councilor, gave a brief history of the process that led to the initial passing of the half-percent sales tax.

He said he understands the importance of area lakes, noting his belief of the unique relationship between the city and the Watershed District.

He took aim at how the Watershed District has handled the dredging of Fountain Lake and claimed purchasing the dredge should have been done through a competitive bidding process.

He said decreasing runoff from farmland is the No. 1 component to reducing sediment in Fountain Lake. He advocated placing buffer strips and cover crops in area farm fields to prevent contamination of area waters.

Erdman suggested having a citizens group elect Watershed Board members and having District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, and District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, sponsor a bill that would make Watershed District positions elected positions.

City councilors support extending the current sales tax for either another 15 years or until $15 million has been collected. The funds are used for projects to improve area lakes.

Al Arends said Albert Lea’s lakes are its most important asset.

He commended the Watershed District in leveraging the sales tax to get outside funding, but said the board needs to become more functional.
 

He supported leaving the ballot language as is and claimed renewal could be in danger if the language is changed.

The council needs to hold a public vote, planned for November’s election, and gain state approval before the tax is renewed.

Paul Overgaard, a former state senator, representative and Watershed District manager, advised term limits for the Watershed District, and said the city’s proposals were to add another level of government under the cover of oversight.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said the city is not adding another layer of government to the Watershed District, and noted the city is not planning on approving Watershed District projects.

He said city officials want to improve communication between the two boards.

Third Ward Councilor George Marin said his thoughts reflect the opinions of constituents, and he thanked each person in the room for their contributions throughout the process.

Marin said the city is looking to add another level of accountability to the Watershed District’s operations.

Watershed District Administrator Brett Behnke said in a prepared statement he wants final ballot language to be set soon.

“The district has made great strides in moving forward on the Fountain Lake restoration project,” Behnke said. Most recently, we entered into purchase agreements for the dredge material storage sites and taken further steps on detailing the dredging details. The momentum on dredging is here now. The community expects us to keep moving forward — I just want this process to move forward so that we can keep the focus on cleaning up our lakes.”

In other news, the council:

• Passed a resolution waiving the annual audit of the Blazing Star Trail Joint Powers Board.

• Approved a resolution declaring April 30 as 2016 Spring Hometown Pride Cleanup Day. Residents will be able to bring in items for free or reduced rates from 9 a.m. to noon April 30 at the city’s transfer station and demolition landfill.

Brush and yard waste, household garbage and demolition will be free to dispose. Appliances, sofas and mattresses will be $10; furniture $5; and passenger car tires $3. There will be regular rates on rims and e-waste.

• Approved plans and ordering of bids for the reconstruction of Park Avenue, Grace Street, Mariners Lane and Harriet Lane.

• Approved a lease agreement with Senior Resources of Freeborn County for 314 S. Broadway. The lease is for three years.

• Approved a lease agreement with United Way of Freeborn County for 314 S. Broadway. The lease is for three years.

• Approved authorizing the sale of the existing scoreboard at Hayek Field to Albert Lea Area Schools for $1.

• Accepted a bid and awarded the contract for North Industrial Park regional stormwater pond and flood mitigation project to Ulland Brothers Inc. of Albert Lea for $379,277. The engineer’s estimate was about $466,000.

• Rejected bids for an alpaca barn project.

• Approved a contract with Sixth Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks.

 
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