Sartell voters overwhelmingly reject local sales tax by 2-1 margin

American Experiment recently cautioned that the imposition of a local sales tax to generate a new revolving stream of funding provides a more tempting option than ever for communities across the state. Take the central Minnesota city of Sartell, where the city council decided to float an open-ended 1.5 percent food and beverage tax before residents.

The proposed tax was projected to raise an estimated $315,000 annually in additional government revenue to fund the “costs for new and existing recreational facilities and related amenities within the city.” Among the tantalizing possibilities used to sell the concept? A new outdoor aquatic center and expansion of local parks, bike trials and playgrounds.

“This is a tax that will support Sartell directly and is collected not only from residents of Sartell but anyone who comes into Sartell,” said Bill Warzala of Everything Sartell, a local business and economic development group that brought the proposal to the city council for approval.

“This is an opportunity for the city to raise funds not 100 percent on the backs of Sartell residents.”

Such a deal. The community weekly paper the Newsleaders doubled down on the sales pitch that visitors to the city for sports tournaments would bear much of the financial burden as a sort of user tax.

The food-and-beverage tax will be imposed only on the purchasers (not the businesses) of ready-to-consume food and alcoholic beverages at bars, restaurants, fast-food places, delivery restaurants and on-sale liquor stores. The tax will not be collected at drug stores, gas stations, general-merchandise stores, grocery stores or off-sale liquor stores.

But the additional 1.5 percent local sales tax would come on top of a 7.625 percent sales tax Sartell residents already incur on most purchases, including a special county and regional sales tax. When Sartell residents went to the polls for the Feb. 8 special election on the proposal, the Star Tribune reported they sent an unequivocal message to local elected officials, resoundingly turning down the tax by a two-to-one margin (462-232 votes).

Sartell Engagement Director Nikki Sweeter said she’s disappointed but thankful to the residents who voted.

“It wasn’t a very close vote,” she said. “I think maybe our community really did speak — right now is just not the right time for this.”

Fewer than 700 residents voted in the special election. Sweeter said she is a little disappointed in the low voter turnout but said city leaders expected a smaller-than-normal turnout due to it being a special election.

“Our youth organizations were really engaged in the process leading up to voting so we’re a little bit at a loss,” she said. “I think getting that education piece from our community is definitely going to be our next step because there’s obviously something [voters] didn’t like about it.”

There’s no telling whether the clear-cut rejection of increasing the sales tax burden will reverberate outside Sartell. But given the already high taxes in Minnesota, other local governments may want to think twice before asking voters to approve raising taxes on themselves.