Residents rebuke “high taxes” at county hearing

Milaca – Mille Lacs County residents crowded into the board room at the Historic Courthouse Dec. 6 to protest their taxes and property values during the county’s annual truth in taxation hearing.
The County Board had set the preliminary, maximum tax levy increase at 9.5 percent in late September and will set the actual levy amount by Dec. 30. The final percentage may be set lower than 9.5 percent but not higher. County Administrator Pat Oman said at the Dec. 6 meeting that the latest proposed levy increase was 4.79 percent, but there was more work to happen on the budget.
People had their tax statements showing what the potential increases would be if the three taxing entities – city, county and school district – implemented the maximum, preliminary levy amount. Audience members called the increases “horrendous,” and several claimed they’d have to move.
Many of the taxpayers said their increase percentages range from 16 percent to 25 percent, while some claimed much higher amounts in the 60s and 70s. One man said the assessed value of his mobile home had increased by 92 percent in one year.
Several residents on a fixed income told the County Board that “something is wrong” when taxing percentages increase by double digits and Social Security income increases by less than 1 percentage point.
County officials explained that people would receive another statement after Jan. 2 that reflects what they will actually pay, after the final levy amounts have been set.
One farmer said he’d like the county to get together with the state and provide relief during years when farm incomes are down, like 2016. Officials said there is a form to fill out for tax relief, but the residents quickly countered that the tax relief applies only to the homestead and 1 acre of a farm, not the entire acreage.
Oman presented the to-date budget numbers. The overall amount proposed to run the county for 2017 is $43.7 million, which represents an increase over last year of about $10.04 million.
Oman said the total reflects several amounts that do not come from the tax levy, such as state grants totaling $3.6 million for the Mille Lacs Lake Economic Relief Program the county will administer. Oman said the county will also spend down some of its capital funds and that the local option sales tax initiated during the last quarter of 2016 will yield revenue in 2017 for road projects.
He said increased spending also results from “investments” into the sheriff’s office, out-of-home child placement costs for state-mandated services and county-employee health-insurance premiums that are higher by about 16 percent.
A taxpayer asked what percentage of the budget is employee salaries, and Oman said he’d have to look up that statistic. He said the county has 240 employees and negotiates with nine union groups.
Taxpayers demand answers about cooperative agreement
Residents zeroed in on the public safety increases and asked how the revocation of the cooperative law enforcement agreement affects the levy and budget. Mille Lacs County revoked its long-standing cooperative agreement with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in June saying it was no longer “cooperative.” The two sides have not negotiated another agreement (see related story in this issue).
Without the agreement in place, the county maintains that tribal police have no authority except on federal-trust lands. When the agreement was in place, the band’s force of 27 officers patrolled the northern end of the county. Since June, the county has hired eight of the 10 additional deputies it plans to add. Oman said the additional deputies will cost in the neighborhood of $870,000, and two of them are funded by a two-year, federal grant.
Sheriff Brent Lindgren said, “We have to provide services to everyone, that’s what the increase is for.”
One audience member asked if the Mille Lacs Band is not willing to do its own law enforcement. An officer from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Tribal Police force said yes, the band pays for its own officers and has been contributing $2 million to $3 million per year’s worth of law enforcement services to the county.
Officials deflected questions about the cooperative agreement and said the public hearing pertained to the budget and levy. Taxpayers countered that since the “public safety investment” increases expenses and taxes, it is directly relevant.