A few thoughts on Bismarck City Measure #1: a $70 million tax increase with dubious assumptions

The City of Bismarck has had a “civic center fetish” for as long as I can remember. It has transcended mayors, commissioners, and reason for decades. Now voters will be asked to fund this fetish to the tune of almost $70 million dollars (for now).

City Measure #1 is really nothing more than authorizing an enormous tax hike within the city. Proponents of this idea dismiss the tax as something only visitors will pay. Apparently they don’t think the rest of us ever go out for a burger or rent a hotel room in this town, or they think we’ll forget that we do. Every time you go out to eat you’ll be paying more if Measure #1 passes.

The hotels would love for this measure to pass because it creates much more convention space (no, it wouldn’t expand the arena for the next big concert or minor league sports team). That means they would be able to rent more hotel rooms out to convention attendees. In a way, this is subsidizing the hospitality industry. Why can’t they put some money together and simply provide this service themselves, if it’s so lucrative?

Right now I can only think of two Bismarck hotels which provide convention service of any magnitute: the Ramkota and the Radisson. If the other hotels want a piece of the pie, why don’t they expand to offer it? After all, we’re told it’s such a money maker.

IF you ask John Q. Public what he’d like to see improved in the current situation, I’m sure his top three answers would be: 1) Parking; 2) Parking; and 3) Parking. This $90 million dollar expansion plan, which was only $50 million as recently as June of this very same year (LINK), does not address additional parking according to Mayor Warford (LINK).

Local resident Lynn Bergman points out that this tax not only makes coming to Bismarck to eat or stay in a hotel room more expensive, and therefore less competitive price-wise, but also does not address the increased maintenance costs for such a facility. What happens when the Civic Center has to maintain the larger facility as well as a full kitchen staff and other amenities? You and I are on the hook for it as citizens of Bismarck.

By the way, if you read this Tribune article you’ll find that this tax doesn’t even pay for the Civic Center expansion completely! They simply assume that they’ll be able to come up with tens of millions of dollars of additional revenue from other sources (LINK) to cover the current price tag (which is nearly TWICE the estimated cost from five months ago).

Again, I don’t think this is the right idea.

It’s an enormous tax on Bismarck residents, regardless of what the proponents tell you;

It doesn’t even address parking, one of the Civic Center’s greatest weaknesses;

It raises enormous questions regarding maintenance and operations costs;

It’s for a project which has nearly doubled in cost over only the past six months;

It assumes that tens of millions of dollars in additional funding are going to fall from the sky in order to complete the project.

Finally: what if the economy turns south, by the way? Even if Mitt Romney wins the election, the Obama EPA Administration is preparing an unprecedented effort to strangle coal, one of our state’s key energy industries (LINK). If that happens, and our state economy falters as a result, are the City Commission going to find this $23 million (currently) as they anticipate? If people cut their extra spending (such as hotel stays and going out to eat) and that tax revenue drops as well, who’s left holding the check for this $90 million dollar debt? You and me, residents of Bismarck.

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