Group seeks to shape city's sales tax destiny

DICKINSON - Speaking over the din of early morning throat clearing and slurps of coffee, Vaune Cripe is making her pitch to a breakroom full of employees at American Bank Center in Dickinson.

DICKINSON - Speaking over the din of early morning throat clearing and slurps of coffee, Vaune Cripe is making her pitch to a breakroom full of employees at American Bank Center in Dickinson.

"If there ever is a good tax, and I know it's hard to say there's any such thing as a good tax, this is really it," Cripe told the crowd Thursday.

Cripe was trying to sell her audience on the City Commission's proposal to broaden the scope of how it can spend the proceeds of the one-half percent sales tax. Her presentation was part of series of information sessions organized by Destiny Dickinson, a group that over the years has dedicated itself to various local efforts.

"It's about projects that will make our community a better place to live," said Rhonda Dukart, one of the group's core members.

The group made a name for itself with its successful push to get voters to approve the one-half percent sales tax to fund the West River Community Center in 2001. Now, it's urging voters to give the city the power to use that tax money on other area projects.


With donations from local manufacturers and individuals, the group has made pamphlets, handouts and run a pullout ad in The Press encouraging support of the proposal.

"Anytime you have the word 'tax' people get nervous about it," Cripe said. "So that's why we've been, you know, dedicating the time to do the education because there's still a just lot of misinformation."

Destiny Dickinson has five core members: Cripe, Dukart, Mayor Dennis Johnson, City Administrator Greg Sund and ABC employee Scott Tschetter. So far, they've done about 15 presentations for local businesses, clubs and organizations. Dukart said three more presentations are scheduled before residents vote on the proposal June 10.

Cripe on Thursday showed her experience discussing the issue as she smoothly fielded questions from the crowd. One employee asked if the city's $100,000 per year contribution to the community center's maintenance fund would ever be capped.

"I don't think that's even been talked about yet. I know that when you look at the repair of a roof, we could have repairs of a million dollars without stretching it too much," Cripe said.

Another employee wondered if surplus money from the tax would go toward property tax relief in the event the proposal is voted down.

"Not necessarily," Cripe said. "The city has discretion of how to use that money right now, and it could be just continued to grow and accumulate until such a point that there is another opportunity for another project."

She even posed a question to herself: Why not let residents vote each time a new project is being considered?


In response, Cripe said she worries such an approach would delay the next project that comes along. She jogged the crowd's memory of the lengthy struggle to get voter approval for the community center.

"I don't know how many of you remember the history of the community center, but it took 30 years to get that building in Dickinson. Lots of attempts," she said.

Cripe also pre-empted the concern that future commissions might abuse the tax money. She pointed to the fact that since the early 1990s, commissioners have had the authority to spend the proceeds of the one-percent sales tax on community projects, and she said no misuse has occurred. She added that the process to get a project approved does not "happen overnight" and that the public can attend City Commission meetings, voice their opinions and even recall officials.

Cripe said the groups she has addressed have asked "some pretty direct questions."

"But I haven't encountered anybody that's said, 'You're full of it,'" Cripe said.

Dukart said the most widespread misconceptions about the proposal are that the tax is new or that it's an increase.

"Once we get the conversation going and the understanding of what it is and why it is,'s like, 'Oh OK, that's a great idea,'" Dukart said.

The one-half percent sales tax can currently be used for property tax reduction; street, water and sewer projects; and the construction, repair and operation of the community center. The proposed amendment seeks to add "other capital improvements to enhance social and economic vitality of Dickinson and the Southwest area" to that list.


Asked if they thought the proposal would take away democratic leverage from residents. Dukart and Cripe both said it would not.

"We're trusting the City Commission that we elect to make decisions in so many bigger projects," Cripe said. "I don't really see that we're taking any power away."

Cripe said allowing the City Commission to spend the tax money more freely will give Dickinson a better shot at competing with other communities in terms of the amenities offered to residents.

"In today's environment, you can't even stand still. You're either going forward or backward," Cripe said.

This weekend as representatives of Destiny Dickinson, Dukart and Cripe plan to attend a retail and restaurant trade show in Las Vegas with the hopes of attracting businesses to town.

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