ROCHESTER — City leaders are split over the best way to get voters behind a proposed $205 million sales tax extension.

The dispute has Mayor Kim Norton vowing to veto the ballot question the Rochester City Council wants to put before voters, saying it's a bad idea to lump together needed infrastructure work — including flood control, housing and commercial development and road construction — with a proposed $65 million regional sports complex.

Norton supports extending the local sales tax, she said at a council meeting Monday night, but she questioned whether voters would back the sports complex without plans for the design, amenities or even a location. She criticized how the city put the $65 million proposal to lawmakers before it even had concrete ideas for the community to consider.

"I'm not comfortable telling the community that you have to vote with all of them, that you can't pick and choose what you think is best for Rochester," Norton said.

In the past, cities could hold voter referendums on local sales tax proposals before bringing them to the Minnesota Legislature. That changed in recent years as lawmakers limited what kind of projects sales taxes can fund and required legislative approval before they are taken to voters.

Rochester brought four items to the Legislature to approve:

  • $65 million for the sports complex
  • $50 million for street reconstruction
  • $40 million for flood control
  • $50 million for "economic vitality": infrastructure related to housing, commercial and industrial projects

The sales tax extension would run over the next 24 years or until the city collected the $205 million, whichever came first.

The Rochester City Council on Monday approved by a 6-1 vote a special election for the sales tax extension, as well as the wording of the ballot question.

Norton argued the measure should be split into four questions for voters to decide, especially since the city is still in the early stages of designing the sports complex.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the city has a better chance of passing its referendum by tying all four questions together. She argued residents could be confused by multiple, similar questions. Some voters could interpret the separate questions to be adding more taxes than what the city is proposing, she said.

If voters don't pass all four questions, it could force the city to go back to lawmakers for another local sales tax extension — or pass costs onto property taxpayers.

"You would potentially maybe be doing the same vote again, if you're even allowed to continue," Zelms said.

Other council members took issue with Norton's characterization, arguing the sports complex is a need for the third-largest city in the state.

"If you look at our sporting community and our hotel-motel community, it's a necessary thing to have," Council Member Shaun Palmer said.

If Norton vetoes the ballot question, it will go back before the council to override with a supermajority at its July 24 meeting. The council is expected to sign off on election funding later this month. City staff say the election could cost about $250,000, though they're trying to refine that number.

Rochester has had a local sales tax since 1983, with the most recent sales tax extension approved in 2012. Its current sales tax is expected to expire at the end of the year, putting pressure on the city after its efforts to get legislative approval in 2022 were stymied by lawmaker inaction on a tax bill.