Two percent levy increase not accepted with open arms

Greg Hunt

There was an angry clamor heard at the Dec. 7 Isanti County Truth-in-Taxation meeting which was attended by over 35 individuals, along with county department heads. The sentiment of the crowd was, “If our market values are decreasing, why are our property taxes still increasing?”

County Administrator Kevin VanHooser opened the meeting with an explanation of the 2 percent levy increase the county is aiming for 2011 Taxes Payable 2012. The levy increase from 2011 is $309,529– nearly matching the $317,000 Isanti County lost in County Program Aid (CPA) from the state.

More major impacts to the 2012 budget were the following, continued VanHooser: $200,000 lost in decreased prisoner board revenue from the state (likely lost for at least 1 1/2 years); $170,653 lost to decreased interest values and building permit fees; Wage freeze to all county staff in 2011 and 1 percent increase in 2012; Staff furloughs implemented in 2011 and 2012; 10 percent reduced appropriations to all community organizations.

Isanti County Assessor Michelle Moen stepped in to explain the changes from the new market value exclusion system inducted by the state this year. Several attendees were also outraged at large hikes on their Green Acres properties.

“Basically, our office has done the reductions on land and housing values for 2012, based on the sales that we collected for nearly two years now. We have to be within a certain percentage of the market, and we are required by the Department of Revenue to be within the 90-105 percent threshold. So we tried to keep it within that 95-98 percent mark,” said Moen. “The market value for agricultural residential values has gone down in Isanti County the past year, however, the Green Acres values– which is the value attributed to agriculture land– have increased, based on the requirements of the Department of Revenue on us.

“For 2012 we saw increases, and for 2013 they’re telling us to anticipate another increase in Green Acres value. We’re getting to the point where our market value is less than the Green Acres value.”

Moen continued, “Commercial and Industrial sales are down– we’re not getting very many sales in Isanti County.”

Auditor Terry Treichel also spent time explaining to the crowd the effects of the market value exclusion on actual property taxes owed.

“Your estimated market value may be going down, but if your tax is based on Green Acres, then it’s going up. There’s a shift in property taxes to those properties. I’m not defending it or saying it’s right or wrong, that’s just what’s happening,” he spoke. “Some property taxes are going down, but someone else’s taxes are going up 4 to 7 percent. That’s what’s happening to a lot of you. All those high-value homes and properties not classified as homestead got the heaviest burden of this shift.”

“We need to overhaul the Minnesota property tax system so that it makes sense,” spoke Commissioner Susan Morris. “All these piecemeal changes are ridiculous. The state needs to choose one way for property taxes, and then leave it alone.”

Public’s angry reaction

Since the Truth-in-Taxation is a public hearing, public comment is welcome. Some speakers gave their names, and many didn’t. Here is a collection of opinions.

“It sounds like you’re trying to blame the state for your levy increase. I think the county should cut 20 percent– make real cuts across the board,” spoke one man.

“I love parks, but I tell you what– our parks budget should be cut completely,” spoke another man.

“Besides Safety, everything else can be cut,” said another man.

Said Jason Lindquist of Stanford Township, “We have a participatory form of government, and I attend political meetings held in this county. And I see nobody there at those political meetings. Nobody pays attention to the political process.”

The last man to speak said, “A lot of us out here are on fixed incomes, and there are some with no jobs. A 2 percent increase is still too much. County workers should be grateful to have a job and accept a 20 percent cut, accepting their share of the sacrifice. A wage freeze is not enough.”

The Board will officially approve the 2012 budget at its Dec. 28 meeting.

Jail Food Service bid goes to A’Viands, cutting 8 jobs

Sheriff Russ Monson worked with his present Jail Food Service staff for two weeks to see if they could cut their original budget of $382,773 in order to get close to the bid A’Viands Food and Services of Roseville presented to take over feeding Isanti County Jail prisoners. There are three full-time and five part-time members on the present Jail Food Service team.

The staff proposal turned in from those talks resulted in a new $263,641 figure for 2012– still short of A’viands’ bid of $223,760 which included keeping on three full-time staff members from the present team.

“To get the best savings and maintain as many jobs as possible, my recommendation is to go with A’Viands and take our three full-time staff members,” spoke Sheriff Russ Monson near the end of the regular board meeting Wednesday night. “I don’t like this, but it’s one of those situations of ‘If I don’t do this, where are we going to get the money from?’”

“This is our money purchasing contracted services, this is not privatizing,” explained County Administrator Kevin VanHooser. “We still have control over the jail food system.”

Added Commissioner Morris, “I think I share the sentiments of everyone on this board that we hugely appreciate our employees who have done a fantastic job for us, and it’s not about the people or quality of their work. Unfortunately, when we sit up here we have to make the tough financial decisions. We had a $3.5 million deficit we had to work with. We turned every stone, and we didn’t want to cut jobs. The reality is, we had to find savings somewhere. We don’t have the luxury to take more money from our reserves.”

“There’s nothing left operationally for us to cut from the Sheriff’s office. It’s down to people and benefits,” added Sheriff Monson. “I don’t like it, and the people affected by it won’t like it.”

In the end, Commissioner Mike Warring made the motion to accept A’Viands’ bid for $171,375 for 2012 Jail Food Services with no county staff retained, which passed with a 3-2 vote (Comm. Southerland and Larson voting against).

That directive represented a savings of $211,398 from the jail staff’s original budget and a $92,266 savings from the staff’s revised budget. The contract with A’Viands is an annual one with an annual renewal.

• In a related vein, the county gathered bids from private companies to provide custodial services for government buildings. The board chose to reject the bids presented at the Dec. 7 meeting, opting to further look at restructuring the current custodial staff.

Final 2011 County Board meetings: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 9 a.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 28, 9 a.m.