ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A Ramsey County panel on Tuesday decided not to call a countywide referendum next year on a proposed half-cent sales tax hike to help build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, eliminating an obstacle that team officials said would have delayed the project and added to its cost.
Just six members of the county's Charter Commission supported the tax referendum, with 10 opposing it. That went against the wishes of county residents who testified by about a 2-to-1 margin against the tax hike at a public hearing preceding the decision.
The Ramsey County tax hike, one piece of a proposed three-way deal between the county, the state of Minnesota and the Vikings, is still far from a done deal. The team continues to look for support for its plan at the State Capitol, and a state report due to be released Wednesday indicates the Arden Hills plan has the potential to drain county resources and that a 2015 opening date is unrealistic.
But the Vikings clearly hoped to avoid a referendum on the tax, pointing out the Twins got money from a Hennepin County sales tax to help build Target Field without a referendum. Team vice president Lester Bagley blasted the referendum proposal earlier Tuesday in a letter to the Charter Commission chairman, saying a countywide vote that had been proposed for November 2012 would push stadium construction to 2013 and inflate current costs by at least $110 million.
"Neither the taxpayers nor the team can afford such a major delay caused by adding this referendum provision," Bagley wrote.
The Charter Commission is a 17-member panel appointed by members of the county judiciary to oversee and make changes to the Ramsey County Charter, a sort of county constitution. Charter Commission members who voted against calling the referendum said it would have been an overreach by members of a non-elected board, usurping the elected members of the Ramsey County Board.
"I do not believe that an appointed group such as ours should be circumventing or challenging the representatives we elected to make these decisions," Chairman Richard Sonterre said. He said if the county board hikes the tax against voters' wishes, those voters will get their recourse at the ballot box.
Most at the public hearing left little doubt that's what they'd do.
"People don't understand this," said St. Paul resident Kathleen Stack. "Why would we do this when there are so many public needs in the county to address?"
A handful of union tradesmen from Ramsey County testified in favor of the project, saying it would mean construction jobs. "It would be a great opportunity for a lot of people," said Stan Tice of Roseville, a plumber and president of St. Paul Building Trades.
The proposed 0.5 percent sales tax hike would raise the county's proposed $350 million share of construction on the $1.1 billion stadium proposal. The state would contribute $300 million through a package of sales taxes on sports memorabilia and other, mostly game-related spending. The team would contribute the rest, an unspecified amount likely to exceed $400 million.
The Charter Commission's decision does not totally preclude a referendum on the tax hike at some point. The Ramsey County Board must still vote for the tax increase; if they do, Ramsey County citizens could still petition to put the matter on the ballot -- unless state lawmakers override that provision.
That's less than certain. Influential state lawmakers including House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch have said they favor a Ramsey County vote on any tax hike.
The Vikings have sought a replacement for the Metrodome for a number of years, calling the 30-year-old venue no longer sufficiently profitable to the team. The team's lease in that Minneapolis stadium ends after the current season, raising fears for the team's future in Minnesota as Los Angeles business leaders aggressively pursue a new NFL franchise.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Council is releasing a report requested by Gov. Mark Dayton on the feasibility of building in Arden Hills, on the heavily contaminated site of a former Army munitions plant. The report, details of which were first reported Tuesday night by Minnesota Public Radio News and confirmed by a Met Council spokeswoman, does not advise against proceeding with the project but suggests it would compromise Ramsey County and the region's ability to finance other major projects.
The report also calls a proposed 2015 opening date for the stadium "an aggressive schedule that is unrealistic," Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery said.
Dayton, a stadium supporter, has suggested he could still call a special session on the stadium this year if a deal comes together. But without broad consensus from all partners, the issue could end up waiting until the next regular session, which convenes at the end of January.