Residents air concerns on county taxes

It happens every year.

County residents come to the first Mille Lacs County Board meeting in December expecting to complain or comment on their taxes.

But the meeting, held Tuesday, Dec. 11, is actually the time for a presentation of the county’s proposed budget and levy for the following year.

This year there were more than 20 residents in attendance and while some didn’t take a chance to air their grievances, others did.

And those who did attend went home with a better idea of what commissioners have to contend with in setting the budget and levy.

County Administrator Roxy Traxler went through the proposed budget and levy for 2013, noting that, once again, the county is not increasing its budget.

That marked the second time in three years that the levy was not increased, there being a decrease of a half percent in 2012. There was also a decrease in 2010 of .68 percent.

Questions followed the presentation by Traxler.

Phillip Eggen, Milaca, asked if it was true that the levy was about $14 million and the budget about $30 million.

Told that it was, Eggen asked about spending for various programs.

Traxler provided those figures. For example, spending on public safety (sheriff’s department) is budgeted at $7.2 million, road and bridge at $7 million and the Community and Veterans Service Department at $8.75 million.

LeRoy Koppendrayer, Princeton, asked about the budgets for the past three years, as well as the state’s portion of funds for the budget.

It was noted that some properties in the county increased in value, while others decreased. Many commercial and farm properties increased in value.

County Assessor Pat Stotz answered a question by saying the county’s tax capacity has been diminished from 6 to 8 percent because of changes in valuations.

A woman, who moved to Milaca recently, asked why her townhouse taxes were up 26.5 percent while a neighbor in the same kind of townhouse saw only a four percent increase.

“What am I getting for that?” she asked.

“You’re not getting more for your money,” answered Commissioner Phil Peterson. He noted that the state has shifted the tax burden.

The townhouse resident was referred to assessor Stotz, as were others who asked specifically about tax statements.

A resident asked if  it was true that the county’s budget for 2013 will go up from $28 million to $30 million.

Traxler answered that it will and said that the budget per year can vary by as much as $2 million without the levy being affected.

A road project might cost $2 million, she said, and there was a year when there was a $5 million increase in the budget. Money can come from grants, the state or the federal government for some projects, Traxler said.

Traxler said that taxes on some properties went up as much as 165 percent while others went down 50, 60 and 70 percent.

Commissioner Dan Whitcomb talked about the tax shift that has taken place because of the homestead exclusion enacted by the Legislature.

A resident asked if it was true that the tax on the Izatys Resort property (now in foreclosure) was dropped from $5 million to $1.5 million in tax court.

The resident criticized county assessors for assessing the property too high. It was explained later that the $5 million figure was for three years, not one, and that it was an unusual case.

Koppendrayer asked if there was an estimate on how the new Walmart in Princeton will affect the county’s tax capacity. He was told there was none at this time.

A farmer asked about why taxes were up 70 percent on farm land and board chair Jack Edmonds answered that it was a specific question for the assessor.

Kevin Koppendrayer, Princeton, asked how much the county can spend on capital projects without a referendum.

Traxler answered that under state law, counties can make capital improvements based on a formula relating to the county’s tax capacity, as long as the county has a capital improvement plan and holds a hearing.

LeRoy Koppendrayer, a former state representative from this area, asked another question and then drew a laugh from the crowd when he said, “You can’t blame me anymore.”

The levy and budget, likely with no changes, will be voted on by commissioners at their 9 a.m. meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the courthouse.