Ramsey County taxpayers hammer Vikings stadium deal

Richard Sonterre convened the public hearing
Ramsey County Charter Commission chairman Rich Sonterre talked to the capacity crowd at the New Brighton Community Center ahead of a public hearing on a proposal to require a referendum for any county taxes that go to professional sports.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The Vikings are having a hard time on the field this season, and they took a beating in New Brighton last night, too. Hundreds of people packed a Ramsey County hearing to weigh in on whether taxpayers should be able to vote on a new stadium tax.

The Vikings say they don't want their stadium plan on a ballot, and the meeting offered a clue as to why: It was a two-and-a-half-hour marathon of almost unbroken objection to the team's plans to pay for the facility on the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site along Interstate 35W.

More than 50 people spoke at the public hearing, including Cindi Aarsvold Nickel, who lives in Shoreview. She drew cheers after telling the Ramsey County Charter Commission they should change the county's constitution to require a referendum on taxpayer funding for pro sports stadiums of any kind — and the Vikings in particular.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom. I am married to a third grade teacher. He is in a public school system and is again having another state pay freeze," she said. "I get tired of having the gun held to all of our heads saying that we need to do this for them or else they're going to leave. In school this would be called bullying, and it's not to be tolerated."

Cindi Aarsvold Nickel
Cindi Aarsvold Nickel, of Shoreview, drew cheers from the crowd when she said she wanted a referendum on any stadium taxes in Ramsey County.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Ramsey County has offered to pay about $350 million of the $1 billion stadium project, sharing the costs with the team and the state. The county would pay its share with a half-percent increase in sales taxes.

Opponents of the plan including Steve Donatelle, who has run Donatelli's restaurant in White Bear Lake restaurant for 35 years, said they feared that stadium tax would drive business out of the county. Donatelle told commissioners he's having "a real hard time" telling his customers the prices on his menu are going to go up because of the proposed stadium tax.

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But some of the most strident opposition wasn't economic. Many people at the meeting told the charter commission that the stadium plan offended their sense of justice.

Vivek Iyer, of Roseville, said he wants the Vikings to live by the same laws as other Minnesotans, and he cited state statute on sales taxes.

"The law is clear. It calls for voter approval of sales tax increases through a referendum," Iyer said. "Creating an exception to the law is the same as abrogating the law. And that is precisely the problem. Supporters of the stadium are spinning this discussion as one in which the decision-making authority of elected officials is being undermined. That is simply not the case."

Diggz Garza defends the Vikings
Diggs Garza, of St. Paul, was one of a handful of Ramsey County residents that told the charter commission that a tax to pay for a Vikings stadium didn't need a referendum.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

State lawmakers exempted the Minnesota Twins ballpark from a similar 2006 vote in Hennepin County. But last night, opponents to the sales tax said that Ramsey County had created a charter back in 1992 to defend against just such action by elected officials.

There were a handful of people who spoke against the referendum. Tom Lemke says he lives just across the road from the proposed stadium site, which is one of the most polluted pieces of real estate in Minnesota.

"We have a mess over there, an absolute mess. It's a train wreck. The federal government, the Army has walked away from that site. And nobody is taking the responsibility or the lead for this thing," he said. "The only reason I'm in favor of any Vikings stadium is because of the situation where we're at least getting some private funding to do something with that site and clean it up."

No Vikings or county officials spoke at the hearing.

The charter commission is scheduled to take more testimony at another meeting in St. Paul on Oct. 11, and then vote on whether to ask voters if stadium taxes should be on the ballot.