Let's Continue Cleaning Up Area Waterways

In 2006, the community, with help from the state legislature, passed a .5 percent local option sales tax to help fund lake improvement projects. It’s safe to say that the sales tax and subsequent cleanup efforts have made a huge difference — to both the quality of the water and in creating a nice, healthy and safe place to enjoy the outdoors for residents and visitors.

The sales tax generates about $1.2 million per year, which is collected by the city of Albert Lea and transferred to the Watershed District. Last November, the citizens expressed overwhelming support for continuing the sales tax with 72 percent of the vote. The vote would extend the city’s .5 percent local option sales for 15 years or $15 million, whichever comes first. This money would be used to continue with water quality improvements to the lakes and streams within the Shell Rock River Watershed, including Fountain Lake and Albert Lea Lake.

Over the last decade the sales tax has helped leverage an additional $21.9 million in outside funding, and has significantly improved the fishery habitat and water quality of area lakes. November’s vote signaled that I needed to author a bill to give legislative approval to the city to continue collecting the sales tax.

This week that bill received a hearing in the Senate Taxes Committee. I was happy to have Laura Cunningham, president of the Lakes Foundation of Albert Lea; and Chad Adams, city manager for the city of Albert Lea, come up and testify alongside me. I also brought with me several letters of support from the Mayo Clinic, Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce and the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau. All of these entities expressed their sincere support of the sales tax. From the increased quality of life standpoint for residents, to the ability to better recruit workers and attract tourists – the support for the Shell Rock River Watershed is nearly universal.

The Chamber mentioned it has actively supported the restoration of the lakes of Freeborn County for nearly 50 years. It also noted that continued work on the watershed will bring direct and indirect jobs to the community. The Albert Lea Lakes Foundation also cites that the work on cleaning up the river has seen positive results. Lake monitoring results show consistent improvements in water clarity, chlorophyll and phosphorus as well as the ability to meet Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) standards. The region surrounding the river is also more protected from flooding, thanks to state flood hazard mitigation funding and the creation of a storm water retention system.

The bill was ultimately laid over, which means the committee will consider including it in is Omnibus Tax Bill, which it will likely roll out sometime in April. I am hopeful the bill is included — especially considering the widespread support for the sales tax in the community.

It has been very fulfilling to witness the changes that have happened to the lakes in Freeborn County over the past decade. A small .5 percent local sales tax can have powerful effects on communities — like it has in Albert Lea. Our community has increased its livability factor — and that’s good for the economy and the people who call Albert Lea home.

Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is the District 27 senator.

© 2015 Shell Rock River Watershed District, 305 S 1st Avenue, Albert Lea, MN 56007