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Airport utility project still alive

The extension of Brainerd water and sewer service to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport — identified as a top priority by area lawmakers — will be part of the tax bill that’s been approved in a conference committee at the Minnesota Legislature.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, a member of the House Tax Committee and the conference committee, said the compromise solution calls for Baxter to collect an extra $8 million through an extension of its local option sales tax with that money dedicated to the airport utility project. Under the solution that was reached over the weekend, voters in both cities would weigh in on the extension of the local option sales taxes. Gazelka said city officials would have to make the case to voters that the airport is a regional center for transportation.

Gazelka credited Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson for his efforts to forge a compromise after it appeared that neither the airport utility project or the extension of local option sales taxes for Brainerd and Baxter would be in the Senate’s version of the bonding bill.

Baxter City Administrator Gordon Heitke said Monday that in the agreement, which was reached after a flurry of phone calls on Saturday, Baxter would collect an extra $8 million through its 1/2 percent local option sales tax that would be dedicated to airport utility project. Originally, he explained, the city requested the ability to raise $32 million through 2031 through the sales tax. That request was amended so that the city would raise a total of $40 million through 2037, of which $8 million would be dedicated to extending water and sewer service to the airport.

Heitke said the revised tax bill, which was approved by the conference committee, will go back to both houses and no amendments may be added to the legislation.

Heitke said “we’re very optimistic” that both houses will support the bill that passed through the conference committee.

Heitke said he believed both Brainerd and Baxter would have to conduct referendums on the extension of their local option sales taxes. In response to a reporter’s question he speculated that if Baxter voters approved the referendum and Brainerd voters rejected it, that Baxter could still use the extra $8 million for the airport utility project, since Baxter was the entity that was collecting the money for that purpose.

Also included in the tax bill is authorization that was needed for a tax-increment financing district related to Isle Drive, Heitke said.

Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson said city officials had been told the two cities’ local options sales tax extensions and the airport utility project were “DOA,” meaning dead on arrival as far as making the cut in the Senate’s bonding proposal.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said the solution that was reached was encouraging. Legislators in St. Paul had said they wanted the two cities to work together on a regional level.

“The airport (project) wasn’t really part of the tax bill until it was negotiated in,” Ruud said. “I think everybody is real excited. It’s a great solution.”

The State Fire Marshal’s Office has told the airport it needs to either build its own water pump and tank system or connect to city water by 2016 in order to establish the consistent water pressure that would be needed to simultaneously power all zones of the fire suppression sprinkler system at the airport.

Money for the extension of sewer and water service from the Brainerd city limits to the airport had been in the House bonding proposal announced earlier.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or Follow on Twitter at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860