Taxing process

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2000

It was 8:30 p.

Friday, December 08, 2000

It was 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Mower County Third District Commissioner David Hillier and county coordinator Craig Oscarson were listening.

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They did a lot of that Thursday night.

An hour earlier, the county’s Truth in Taxation hearing had ended and Hillier and Oscarson, among others, got an earful during the 2 1/2 hour session also.

Now, the pair stood in an otherwise empty Mower County government center hallway, nodding their heads dutifully that they were paying attention, and doing some more listening.

Jim Hartson was speaking. The rural Waltham man wouldn’t let them go without another salvo of words.

It was that kind of TNT hearing.

The county board is proposing a 2001 budget of $37,417,900, which is a 16.5 percent increase over year 2000’s actual budget of $32,107,761.

In addition, the county board is proposed a property tax levy of $8,437,276 or an increase of 17.49 percent over year 2000’s actual levy of $7,181,490.

"Gentleman," admonished Joe Morgan, the retired former long-time Mower County District Court Clerk. "You better have some good reasons for this and you better tell the public what they are."

There were more questions than answers Thursday night and even the answers given by county officials and staff weren’t acceptable.

Mike Sutherland, the county assessor, calculated the average property tax increase at 7 percent when adjustments are made for the increase in valuations and a shift in the property tax burden from residential property to commercial property.

Sutherland estimated the owner of a home valued at $45,000 will see a 5.5 percent increase and the owner of a $100,000 home will see a 7 percent increase.

When the hearing ended, Sutherland was seen by all escorting an elderly woman to his office who had shown the assessor a proposed property tax statement she had received that showed her taxes increasing by 33 percent next year.

Hartson has been an outspoken opponent of the county board’s decision to recommend a property tax exemption to Great River Energy for the power plant it is building in Pleasant Valley Township. He said he came to a 1997 TNT hearing and asked the county commissioners and Oscarson to compare Mower County’s property tax rates with those of neighboring counties.

"What I want to know," Hartson asked the commissioners Thursday night, "is the same question I asked three years ago. How does Mower County stack up with these other counties?"

Hartson said the county commissioners have an opportunity to address such issues as the loss of residents and businesses to other more "taxpayer friendly" counties, but, he noted, "It’s obvious you haven’t even considered that."

The hard questions and sarcasm came after Oscarson attempted to explain the proposed budget and levy to the citizens who filled the commissioners’ standing-room-only meeting room for the 5 p.m. meeting.

He also distributed a handout to support his statements on behalf of the county board.

An increased demand for services, particularly in the criminal justice system, county jail, highway department and health and human services, are behind the budget and levy increases. For every increase, Oscarson had an explanation.

No sooner had he finished than the first of the citizens marched to the podium to speak.

When Virginia Bissen questioned the decision to take the bookmobile out of service beginning next summer, Ken Retterath said "Most counties don’t have this kind of money to play with that you do."

And his son, Russ Retterath, an Adams businessman, told the commissioners, "I don’t know why people in other parts of the county outside Austin should be burdened with something like that ice arena."

Then, Malcolm McDonald, the retired Austin Public Schools administrator, was at the podium with a list of questions to ask the commissioners and Oscarson.

McDonald first pointed out publicly the county commissioners were accumulating reserves in excess of those recommended for government units two years ago.

"We expect the county to provide necessary programs and services, but not to be our banker," McDonald said to a loud ovation from the assembled citizens.

The county’s reserves dominated the discussion for the rest of the hearing.

According to the Minnesota State Auditor, Mower County had designated reserves of $6,578,274 in 1990 and undesignated reserves of $7,715,960 for a total of $14,294,234.

In 1999, the State Auditor reported the county’s designated reserves were $8,758,097 and the undesignated reserves were at the $23,814,240 level for a total of $32,572,337.

The net increase in undesignated fund balance was $16,098,280 during the period.

The increase funded by taxes about the 1990 levy was $14,335,437.

McDonald’s point, made after a series of other pointed questions about the reserves, was this: "The fund balance could fund the money you are raising by the levy. Leave the property tax levy at zero and fund it from the reserves. That’s my recommendation."

Before the hearing was over, Kyle Klaehn, an Austin businessman, went through the handout distributed by Oscarson.

"It says right here," Klaehn read from the handout, "’Each year, a county reviews the needs and wants of its citizens and how to meet those needs and wants.’ What I want to know is when you say you need the money from the property tax levy and the money from the reserves to pay for all those services and programs you mentioned, is that the people talking or is that the county board?"

The budget and levy are slated for final adoption Dec. 27, when the county board holds an 11 a.m. public hearing in the county commissioners’ meeting room.