Our view: Transparency, not conspiracy, in county’s letter to taxpayersThe don’t-blame-us letters started dropping into St. Louis County mailboxes over the weekend. Signed by the county’s elected board members, the letters explained how a change in state property tax law is resulting in a property tax increase of about 6 percent countywide.
The don’t-blame-us letters started dropping into St. Louis County mailboxes over the weekend. Signed by the county’s elected board members, the letters explained how a change in state property tax law is resulting in a property tax increase of about 6 percent countywide.
The change was the state’s elimination of the decades-old Homestead Credit, an important part of the ending of last summer’s state shutdown. To most taxpayers, though, the change, months later, just means yet another can’t-afford-it hit to the bottom line.
So who can blame the county for sending a letter to help assure the expected backlash is appropriately placed?
“It’s part of our broader goal and effort to be transparent and accountable,” Deputy Administrator Linnea Betzler Mirsch told News Tribune editorial board members Monday about the decision to send out the letters, which was supported by all commissioners. “The intent is to be very open.”
Not only that, “We thought we really needed to get ahead of this,” fellow Deputy Administrator Gary Eckenberg said, referring to the mailing later this month of the county’s 2012 Proposed Property Tax Statements and the “sticker shock” that’s sure to accompany them.
That the county’s letter started arriving in Duluth just days before today’s election — an election that includes votes with tax implications — was coincidental, the county’s administrators insisted. “We didn’t even think of that,” Eckenberg said.
So no conspiracy, only an attempt at transparency, they said.
County officials can be credited for preparing and sending out their letters of explanation. But the notes won’t insulate the county from its share of criticism for rising property taxes. Commissioners didn’t lower taxes to help property owners absorb the elimination of the Homestead Credit program. With a commitment to finally making long-needed repairs to the county’s 1,600 miles of gravel roads, and with the need to continue supporting Arrowhead Regional Corrections, the county’s 2012 levy couldn’t be better than a 1.8 percent increase, Eckenberg and Betzler Mirsch said.
That’s “significantly below the rate of inflation for the fourth year in a row,” as the county pointed out in its letter. And most years that’s an increase that would be seen by taxpayers as modest and acceptable, especially in light of impressive efforts by the county to be fiscally responsible. A recent example is the money-saving consolidation of 911 emergency services. Other examples have included the privatizing of nursing home care and restaurant inspections. In addition, the ranks of full-time county employees have been reduced by about 16 percent since 2007, from about 2,000 employees to about 1,700 now.
But this isn’t most years — even if an argument could be made that, like an umpire who calls a good game, the county must be doing a good job because so little grumbling is being heard.
The timing of the county’s letter could have been better; it could have — and probably should have — waited until after Election Day today. But give the county credit for sending it out, for sharing the information, and for being transparent and open — as it claims it’s striving to be.