Hennepin County Board approves stadium sales tax

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A new downtown stadium for the Minnesota Twins took a major step forward on Tuesday, when the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution creating a .15 percent sales tax. The 4–3 vote came after a lively debate on taxes, baseball, and democracy.

“We’re ready; it’s time for the process to end and the building to begin,” said Commissioner Mike Opat, the author of the ordinance. “We have to not merely act to survive, we need to act to thrive.”

Opat and the other stadium proponents on the board stressed the value of the stadium’s economic development potential and the need to invest in new amenities to keep the city competitive. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin ticked off a litany of urban investments, from the Nicollet Mall to the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, and called the stadium the “next generation” of investment.

“I don’t like the economics of big-time sports anymore than anyone else,” he said. But part of the $28 million the county is expected to collect from the tax each year will be dedicated to library operations and youth sports programs. “It’s a close call,” he admitted, “but a positive step.”

McLaughlin asked critics to “keep a sense of scale about this,” and noted that the annual budget for Hennepin County Medical Center dwarfs the annual investment in the ballpark. “It’s a relatively modest amount,” he said.

Linda Koblick, who along with commissioners Penny Steele and Gail Dorfman, voted against the measure, complained that the process had featured “deliberate obfuscation” on the part of stadium supporters. And she sought to counter those who argue that a referendum wasn’t necessary because commissioners would be accountable to their constituents at the next election. “A referendum is a different issue,” she said. “Referendums are used for capital improvements.”

The issue, she added, was not about the relative value of a baseball park. “It’s about a long-term tax that will affect everyone of you for the next 30 years.”

Steele called the tax a “big expansion of corporate welfare” that did little to enhance essential services for county residents. Steele said she’s not critical of the Minnesota Twins or any other business for seeking a government subsidies. They are doing everything they can to give their business an edge. “I don’t blame businesses for coming to government for subsidies, I blame government for giving them.”

The process will increase voter cynicism, she added, before imploring voters to hold commissioners accountable for their actions in November. “This will change the face of the county forever,” she said. “It will be remembered.”

Korblick did manage to amend the resolution in a way that committed the county to using union labor and minority and women-owned contractors in the construction of the $520 million stadium, but failed in her attempt to remove funding for libraries and youth sports programs.

She argued that those services should be part of the county’s regular budget process, not simply added to an unpopular ordinance in order to make it a bit more palatable. “It’s an inappropriate way to fund these services,” she said.

That amendment failed on a 5–2 vote..

The county will now begin negotiating the finer details of the deal with the Twins and the new Ballpark Authority. The facility is expected to open in 2010.

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