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Local View: About that proposal to fix Duluth's streets: Sales tax a fair way to share the burden

Having lived in Duluth most of my life, and after a recent foray into city politics, I recognize the desire to fix the streets as a common theme. Between cold winters, gravity, and salt, Duluth always will have challenges when it comes to the upkeep of our streets.

David ZbarackiIn asking the City Council to put forth a referendum for a half-percent sales tax that would be dedicated by law to street repair, Mayor Emily Larson called the voter's bluff: You want to fix the streets? Here, let's fix the streets.

I realize any tax increase or new tax is controversial. Cities are limited in ways they can raise revenue: property taxes, sales taxes, and fees/assessments.

There are also a few reasons as to why a tax like this is somewhat inevitable.

The primary reason is that Duluth is big — by area, not population. Duluth is an urban wilderness, sprawling 26 miles across a hillside, but we pay a price for that. To put things into perspective, Duluth has about half the number of miles of streets as Minneapolis with only one-fifth of the population.

Duluth has low property tax rates as a percentage of home value. Low property tax rates combined with average low home values are unique to a city like Duluth that has experienced decades of deindustrialization. I would invite readers to compare Duluth's property tax rates to other so-called "rust-belt" cities. I also would invite Duluthians to compare property tax rates in neighboring communities and then factor in how much money they would have to spend in Duluth with our higher sales tax in order to make up the difference. Chances are, most households probably do better in Duluth.

This is made possible through local government aid, or LGA, which comprises about a third of the city of Duluth's revenue. LGA, doled out from St. Paul, ensures that cities and towns across Minnesota are able to provide essential services without massive property tax increases.

Finally, Duluth has a lot of people who use our roads who do not live here, and I'm not just referring to tourists. Over half of the people who work in Duluth do not live in the city. There are various reasons as to why this is the case, but it is not unreasonable to ask non-residents to pay a small portion for upkeep on the infrastructure they also use.

When it comes to fixing our streets, there are no easy answers. There is no magic pot of money. Bike trails might generate a lot of headlines, but the cumulative total the city has spent on them would be enough to redo a few city blocks. Half of the city budget goes to things we often take for granted, like the police and fire departments. Cutting our way to the $7 million a year this new sales tax for streets will generate likely would involve draconian cuts to public safety. That's not a risk I'm willing to take.

Though no tax is perfect or desirable, a sales tax is a practical way to spread the burden over the broadest number of people. Please join me in voting "yes" this November.

Dave Zbaracki lives in Duluth with his wife Anne and two children. He is a community activist who, at the DFL convention this year, dropped his bid for City Council in the 2nd District to support his opponent.



Duluth voters will be asked via their ballots on Election Day, Nov. 7, whether they support a new half-percent sales tax in the city to raise about $7 million a year to fix streets. The tax wouldn’t be applied to the purchases of necessities like food or clothing. The money raised would be required by law to be used solely for road repairs. With voter approval, the Minnesota Legislature would need to authorize creation of the new tax.