Fighting for Clean Water

ST. PAUL — Local officials on Tuesday lobbied state legislators for support to extend Shell Rock River Watershed District’s half-percent sales tax.

The visit came after the district’s request to extend the sales tax for either 15 years or until $15 million has been collected was introduced earlier in the legislative session. District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks. DFL-Austin, and District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, are authors of the bill.

Participating in the visit were  Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams; Watershed District officials Brett Behnke, Andy Henschel, Courtney Christensen, Al Bakken and Matt Benda; and clean water advocates Laura Cunningham, Ellen Kehr, Dan Borland and Bill Howe.

District 45 Sen. Ann H. Rest, DFL-New Hope, a Senate Tax Committee ranking minority member, suggested officials focus on projects the sales tax will help fund during testimony next month before the Legislature.

District 28B Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said district officials made a compelling case to extend the sales tax.

Davids, chairman of the House Tax Committee, said he hopes the initiative is included in a report that will be submitted to him by Property Tax and Local Government Finance Committee Chairman Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

“This group was very, very prepared,” Davids said.

Though the sales tax has some hurdles to clear in the Legislature, Freeborn County is ready for the tax to be renewed, he said.

Albert Lea Lakes Foundation President Laura Cunningham presented state legislators a fact sheet with several projects completed by the district, including:

Assisting the city of Albert Lea to secure $6.1 million for the Albert Lea landfill cleanup in Edgewater Park.

Leading efforts to improve the water quality of Fountain Lake, Albert Lea Lake and Pickerel Lake.

White Lake, Mud Lake, Wedge Creek, Goose Lake, Fountain Lake and Albert Lea Lake fish barriers and reclamation.

Securing $490,000 in state flood hazard mitigation funds to create a stormwater retention system in South Industrial Park.

• Leading efforts to secure state grants for a new dam on Albert Lea Lake and to secure a 257-acre property that encompasses the headwaters of the Shell Rock River.

• Securing $964,000 in funding to construct the Stables area flood mitigation pond to reduce water entering Fountain Lake.

• Having a combined $5.39 million in funding from partners to restore, protect and enhance land benefiting 2,866 acres for fish, waterfowl and wildlife.

The tax generates approximately $1.2 million per year, has generated $14 million in local sales tax and has leveraged $21.9 million in outside funding since 2006.

Cunningham presented legislators with a letter of support for the tax from Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Randy Kehr and discussed local support for extending the sales tax. Voters approved extending the tax in November with 71.56 percent support.

Bennett and local officials also discussed funding the construction of a bridge across Albert Lea Lake to connect Blazing Star Trail from Albert Lea to Hayward.

Bennett and Sparks expressed optimism that extending the sales tax will be approved this year and thanked officials for visiting the Capitol.

“I just appreciate that, because local input is critical to my job,” Bennett said.

“I think it shows broad support from a lot of different individuals and it makes a big difference when they take the time to come up here,” Sparks said.

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