County to offset some bond costs

Published 10:44 am Friday, December 5, 2008

Mower County’s annual Truth In Taxation hearing Thursday night attracted 40 people.

They all thanked the county commissioners for increasing their property valuations, taking their ag-homestead exemptions from them, raising taxes by double digits and building a new $36 million jail and justice center despite a sour economy … not exactly.

There was little praise for Mower County officials at the TNT hearing, but one compliment came from a well-known critic of county government: Jim Hartson.

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“I want to compliment you,” Hartson told the county commissioners.

“A year ago I suggested that you use wind energy tax revenues to reduce taxes, and now I understand you’re going to do that by using these taxes to reduce the jail and justice center costs.”

Having said that, the Waltham area farmer and wind energy developer himself, said the commissioners were not going far enough in using wind energy tax revenues to keep county spending from increasing.

That will happen in 2009, according to the county commissioners proposed property tax levy and budget, but not by as much as anticipated earlier.

Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, told the TNT audience, the proposed 2009 property tax levy of 21.688 percent will be reduced to 17.9 percent, because of higher than anticipated wind energy tax revenues. The new figure, according to Oscarson, is $878,000 from the county’s burgeoning wind energy development projects in eastern Mower County. That will result in a 3.8 percent decrease in the county levy in 2009.

Of that $878,000 amount, $778,000 will be used to offset jail and justice center bond costs, Oscarson told the audience.

The “good news” from the TNT hearing ended there and taxpayers’ questions and complaints began.

Oscarson, who did most of the talking for the county commissioners — with help from finance director Donna Welsh and assessor Richard Peterson — warned the recently announced $5.27-billion state budget shortfall will force further budgetary adjustments in 2009, while the state attempts to balance its own budget by shifting more unfunded mandates on local government.

“We’re concerned about that,” Oscarson said in understatement.

Matt Simonson, Austin, raised the first of several queries why property valuations keep increasing. “Why is the price of real estate declining everywhere else in the nation, and it’s increasing here?” Simonson asked.

The Mower County Assessor said state law requires assessors determine valuations based on the real estate sales.

Tom Higgins, rural Austin, offered to sell his house to anyone in the audience “who wants to buy a flooded house.”

He had no takers.

According to Higgins, recurring Cedar River flooding causes Rose Creek to rise, flooding his home about 3 1/2 miles south of Austin.

Despite the flooding, Higgins said his property taxes also increased.

“I can’t keep paying more taxes every year like this,” he said.

Royce Helmbrecht, rural Austin, was the first of several people to dispute the change in property classification, resulting in the loss of the taxpayer-friendly ag-homestead exemption.

Unable yet to ascertain from county officials what his proposed property taxes will be next year, Helmbrecht said, “I think the process is wrong. I just want to know what my taxes will be in 2009.”

Hartson was next to address county officials and urged the commissioners to more aggressively pursue wind energy development and using the wind energy tax revenues to reduce spending and with it, taxes.

An hour into the hearing, Mike Nelson, Austin, inquired about the officials’ plans for the Department of Health and Human Services now located at OakPark Mall.

An unidentified Grand Meadow man asked about the disparity between the valuations of sandy land and “heavy” ground in Grand Meadow Township.

Zane Juncker, Austin, inquired about the bond payments to finance the new jail and justice center.

An unidentified LeRoy man asked about the size of the new jail and will the county house illegal immigrants.

Dennis Reimers, Udolpho Township, was another to question losing the ag-homestead classification and being reclassified as rural residential.

“The assessor must have visited my place,” Reimers said. “I don’t know how he could have missed the horses, the hay and the forage equipment on my six acres farm.”

Larry Wilson, Windom Township, echoed Reimers’ frustration with a scenario of his own that was similar.

Wilson said he has a feedlot permit on his game farm, hatchery operation permit and other permits. “Yet, all of a sudden, I’m rural residential and no longer a farm,” Wilson said.

Simonson returned to the microphone to lament the expenditure of taxes (federal) to remove two bridges and build a new stretch of city street along East Oakland Avenue in Austin.

Richard P. Cummings, 1st District and chairman of the county board, said that was a city decision and not the county’s problem.

Hartson returned for his last words and said county officials should stop saying, “We’re going to build a 128-bed jail.”

“What I want to know,” Hartson said, “Are they king size or queen size?”

“If you’re talking about expanding it to 248-beds, maybe you’re making the jail too comfortable,” he said.

Ray Tucker, 2nd District, reminded those rural residents frustrated by increased valuations and losing their ag-homestead classifications to make appointments with the Mower County Assessor before Dec. 15, the deadline for hearing appeals.

Cummings reminded everyone the commissioners will meet 11 a.m. Dec. 16 to consider adoption of the property tax levy and budget for 2009.

The commissioners cannot increase the levy; only lower it or accept it as presented.