Local Sales Tax Referendum

On Election Day, Willmar’s voters will be asked to approve yet another new tax. This one, packaged and promoted by government bureaucrats and the Chamber of Commerce, is called the Local Option Sales Tax.

Its stated purpose is to extract $10 million from shoppers doing their business in Willmar, regardless of where they live. The $10 million is to be spent on Swannson Field upgrades, refrigeration replacement at the Willmar Civic Center, and upgrades at Robbins Island park.

Whether or not these upgrades rank high on the To-Do list of Willmar’s taxpayers, no one knows. That’s because no one asked us in a reliable, methodical way.

As a strategic choice, the advocates of the sales tax were clever in proposing a sales tax devoted to recreational upgrades used by children. As Madison Avenue advertisers will tell you, nothing sells quite like children and pets. In this case, the advocates are banking on attracting voters who have children. After all, it worked with the school bond referendum, so it should work with a referendum for playgrounds, right?

We all know Willmar has shrinking consumer spending power. That’s why stores are shuttering left and right. We know that property tax revenues are stagnant. That’s because new home construction is relatively flat, and Willmar awards far too many tax giveaways.

The irony is, while Willmar continues to struggle with a lackluster economy, the powers-that-be theorize that increasing the taxes on people who shop here - particularly out-of-towners - won’t drive away still more consumers. That’s quite a gamble, considering the extent to which Willmar depends on out-of-town shoppers, now that Willmar’s middle class is shrinking.

So, there are really two issues that Willmar voters need to ponder before voting on the referendum. One, are we satisfied that the three recreational upgrades are front burner issues, compared to, say, terrible road conditions, chronic flooding and storm water problems? Second, do we want to enact a tax that penalizes shoppers for spending money in Willmar, as opposed to having a local government that lives within its means? And if this new tax is approved, surely we know it won’t be the last one!

If you believe our local government can spend its way to prosperity with more spending and more taxes, then you will probably vote for the referendum. If, however, you believe that our city government must, like most families, discipline its spending habits and live within its means, I suspect you will be voting with me to reject the sales tax.

Otherwise, we are reinforcing the all-too-common thinking that the taxpaying public is nothing but a bottomless well.