Hearing attendance translates into ‘yes’ to property tax increases

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Ely resident Gary Kovall speaks to the Ely City Council at a tax hearing earlier this week.

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Minnesota property taxpayers are facing bigger tax increases in 2012 than they have for several years. But attendance has been sparse at most of the hundreds of truth-in-taxation hearings local governments have been holding around the state.

Does that mean Minnesotans are saying they’re OK with tax increases?

Remember that there are more than 3,000 cities, school districts, counties and townships with the authority to levy property taxes and each one has its own demands and priorities. We’ve been reporting this fall with our Forced to Choose series on all the choices they face over libraries, street repairs, even policing. And raising taxes is one of those choices.

So when you look in total at what all those local officials are doing and the relative silence at taxpayer hearings, you do come to the conclusion that on some level communities seem to be agreeing to raise their taxes next year.

As the Department of Revenue reported two weeks ago, the total burden on owners of homes, businesses and other property is proposed right now to go up as much as $379 million, almost 5 percent.

That number will shrink by the end of the month, just as it has in years past. The Minneapolis School District, for example, is promising to knock its proposed tax levy down by more than $10 million. Last year, local governments reduced levies by a total of $53 million between September proposals and December final tallies.

Eric Willette, director of property tax research at the revenue department is guessing the reduction will be smaller this year but even if it’s the same or a little greater, the total burden on taxpayers is going up more than it has since 2009.

Taxpayers haven’t been quiet everywhere. The city of Farmington, for example, proposed a 14 percent increase in its property tax levy to build some reserves and eventually save on debt service. Mayor Todd Larson told me residents basically said “nice plan but not now” and the city eliminated the proposed increase.

Ely was another place taxpayers were vocal about a big increase, and the city council is trying to whittle away at the budget.

But in many places turnout at truth-in-taxation hearings was light to non-existent. Willette said one factor is that although local officials may be asking for property tax increases, they by and large aren’t seeking big budget or total levy increases. Many are mainly passing along to taxpayers the burden that used to fall on the state. That may be making higher taxes an easier sell.

When we asked sources in our Public Insight Network what they think about taxes and local services, we saw a variety of attitudes. Some aren’t getting the services they think they should. Some are having a tough time finding the cash to pay higher tax bills. But many say they are satisfied with local government services and consider taxes a necessity.

“I don’t feel that I pay very much tax for all the services I receive,” said Steve Valencic in Minneapolis. “Overall, it seems like a pretty good deal.”

When you look at the results this fall, you have to conclude that the last group more or less carried the day.

One final thing to keep in mind, as Jay Kiedrowski at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute noted: Some people don’t like to come out to public hearings but they still vote.

  • Albatross

    Yeah, THAT’S why I don’t got to truth-in-taxation hearings. It’s not because I never hear a word about them. Nor is it because I don’t believe they’d make a lick of difference. Nor am I failing to attend because I had to take a second job in order to pay my property taxes. Nor am I failing to attend because I’m busy Occupying Minneapolis. No, the only reason I don’t attend these exquisitely boring exercises in civic theater… is because I’ve simply given up.

    Thanks for framing the issue in such an unbiased manner.