Others’ opinion: Time to adjust Truth in Taxation procedures

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, February 8, 2017

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

It’s time for a fresh look at a staple of local government operations in Minnesota: Truth in Taxation.

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The process — in place for nearly three decades — involves property tax notices based on proposed levies and public meetings to discuss issues.

The message from a new study: Local governments can do a better job of engaging taxpayers by involving them earlier in the process.

Work to bring more transparency to local public budgets deserves attention, and we’ve made note over the years of advocacy by the Minnesota Chapter of NAIOP, the commercial-real-estate development association. The study it engaged the Citizens League to conduct calls on local governments and elected officials to consider new ways to inform and involve citizens in city, county and school district financing processes.

The outcome, Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw told us, is “a great opportunity for everybody to win on this.”

But while intentions are good, he said, some efforts inadvertently fall short, especially if governments fail to provide information at the right time or do so in ways that aren’t helpful to taxpayers. By the time meetings are held, typically in November or December, “most of the decisions have been made,” Kershaw observes.

There’s frustration because people feel ignored in budget processes, Quinn Cheney, NAIOP-Minnesota’s director of public policy, told us. However, “the earlier they’re engaged, the more they are aware of the process, the more comfortable they’ll be with the end results, no matter what they might be.”

NAIOP-Minnesota over the years has championed transparency as a way for its business members — who bear a significant share of the local property tax burden — to understand the real factors that contribute to rising taxes.

In its study, the Citizens League found that information presented in the current Truth in Taxation process is overly complex, that participation is low and that the public-hearing format discourages discussion and “authentic feedback.”

Among its recommendations — presented as a “working draft to spur further input and conversation,” rather than a document approved by its board — the league calls for reforming Truth in Taxation into a Truth-in-Budgeting process. It makes the point that the current system “no longer meets its original legislative intent, and may even work against the initial goals of the legislation.”

It is time to “carefully and collaboratively re-evaluate Truth in Taxation,” the league says, suggesting “a blend of state direction and local choice about the timing, purpose and expectations for the process.”

Meanwhile, some local governments are making strides, starting “to lead on this issue,” Kershaw said, and “really trying to figure out … how they present information,” using graphics or other formats “that are accessible to their residents and business owners.”

In the east metro, Quinn observes, Dakota County is a leader in presenting information to citizens in an easy-to-read way.

It’s a good time to tune up an important process. From aging populations to needed infrastructure repairs, local governments face expensive challenges. Transparency is good for citizens, and governments, too.