The fiscally conservative leadership of Dakota County is advocating for numerous tax and fee increases this legislative session in hopes of shoring up depleted funds for highways and transit.
Funding for child welfare, corrections, parks and trails also topped the list of requests that county officials will ask legislators to tackle this session.
Commissioners approved 20 legislative priorities last week, reflecting a diverse set of county needs. Highway and transit funding was the number one request.
“That, I’m sure, is no surprise,” said Claire Pritchard, who presented the list to commissioners. Transportation funding -- or, more often, the lack thereof -- is a common theme at county meetings.
The county estimates it will need nearly $1.25 billion through 2030 to maintain an “economically competitive” trunk highway system, and only expects $600 million in revenue during that time – leaving it with shortfall of more than $600 million.
Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is low on funds, forcing counties to pay for major projects, County Manager Brandt Richardson said.
“MnDOT, in the metro area, is in the mode of congestion relief,” Richardson said, and can only afford limited, cost-effective fixes. “They just don’t have the money,” he said.
So Dakota County is advocating for increasing state fuel taxes, vehicle sales taxes and registration fees that support highways and bridges.
The state should also allow metro-area counties participating in the Counties Transit Improvement Board to increase their quarter percent sales tax for transportation to a half percent, county officials said, and authorize new user fees to address the impact of heavy commercial vehicles.
Roads funding does not conflict with a fiscally conservative viewpoint, said County Commissioner Chris Gerlach, a Republican who was previously a state representative.
“You can be a conservative and agree basic infrastructure is worth taxing for, worth investing in,” Gerlach said.
Long list of needs
The county’s formation of the laundry list of requests began several months ago.
The list is primarily focused on specific local needs, while larger groups, like the Association of Minnesota Counties, advocate for general priorities, Richardson said.
Other top priorities this year include:
• Funds to design and build 6.6 miles of trails in Apple Valley, Eagan and Rosemount, and build a trailhead in Mendota Heights. Dakota County is asking for $5.7 million in state bonding funds to support the four projects.
• Two social welfare items -- additional state funding to ensure effective supervision of people in the corrections system, and adequate child protection staffing and services.
• Asking the state to fulfill a statutory obligation of funding at least 40 percent of operations and maintenance costs for regional parks.
The state has historically only paid for 5 to 19 percent of those costs, Pritchard said.
The county has 6,000 acres of parkland, and more than a million people visit the parks each year. The number of park visitors is increasing regionally and so are the facilities, programs and space to accommodate them – but that system is getting older.
“The state’s historic underfunding has resulted in continued deterioration of aging infrastructure, inadequate stewardship to natural resources and substandard maintenance of facilities,” county documents state.
Many of the lower-priority legislative requests are linked to environmental concerns. One of Dakota County’s major initiatives over the past year has been pushing residents to recycle. It is now advocating for funding to support different methods of recycling organic material, and requiring electronics manufacturers to recycle more waste electronics.
County officials are looking into using hydroelectric power generated by the county-owned Byllesby Dam near Cannon Falls to power their various buildings and operations. They are asking the state to support a law that a utility company, like Xcel Energy, charge the lowest possible fee to distribute that energy.
They also supported continuing the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Dam Safety Grant program, which offers a 50-50 cost share for projects.
“This funding stream is vital in efforts to repair and maintain high-hazard dams and to protect the safety of surrounding communities,” county documents state.