Rising taxes are an eye-opener

Published 4:53 pm Saturday, November 19, 2011

By Sandy Forstner

Chamber executive director

Local taxpayers may be shocked when they open their 2012 estimated property tax bills. The cost of providing government services is rising. The burden will fall most harshly on our job providers, commercial and agricultural property owners. Most residential property owners will see tax increases, as well.

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Mower County is proposing a levy increase of $2.6 million or 18.45 percent; the City of Austin, a 13 percent hike. Combined, the two will ask property taxpayers to ante up an additional $3 million next year.

Local officials have been quick to point the finger of blame at St. Paul. And while there is no doubt many state budget decisions can be questioned it is unfair to only blame the State of Minnesota. The fact is the cost of government in our state is high, and local government is part of the cause. Statewide, local units of government account for 40 percent of all taxes collected.

Government spending has far outpaced inflation in recent years. State revenues are up $10 billion since 2001, and yet we still faced a $5 billion shortfall going into the 2011 Legislative Session. Mower County’s levy has more than doubled since 2003, and the city’s levy is up nearly 80 percent over that same time period. The rate of inflation for that same period is 23 percent.

A study published by the Minnesota Taxpayers Association a year ago found that the vast majority of public employees are paid more than their private sector counterparts, and the cost of total compensation packages has outpaced growth in state revenues by 35 percent since 2001. Locally, the average county or city employee costs taxpayers about $80,000 per year. And though the number of employees is lower than several years ago, payroll is accounting for a greater share of general fund budgets.

In these tough economic times, simply asking taxpayers — either directly or through the State — for more money cannot be the only solution. Instead, government officials must do a better job evaluating priorities and finding ways to deliver needed services more cost efficiently. We need to be innovative in our approach, and recognize that times have changed. We need to challenge our elected officials to think “outside the box,” and focus on the reality that we need to reduce overhead costs and increase the value citizens receive from government services. We can and must do better.

The alternative is more of the double-digit tax increases we are seeing today.