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Duluth City Council opens door wider for property tax increases

A desire to better fund police and more affordable housing prompted councilors to raise the mayor's proposed cap on the local levy.

Duluth City Hall.jpg
Duluth City Hall (Clint Austin / 2017 file / News Tribune)
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The Duluth City Council unanimously agreed Monday night to broaden the options for higher taxation come 2022, with an eye toward boosting funding for public safety and affordable housing.

Mayor Emily Larson had earlier proposed a 6% increase in the city's share of the property tax levy next year. Thanks to new construction and a growing property tax base, her proposal could have been funded with just a 1.06% increase in the city's property tax rate.

But a couple of amendments passed by councilors Monday could allow the city to increase its property tax levy by another 3.99% for improved public safety services and another 0.93% to support an expansion of the city's inventory of affordable housing.

Combined, the two amendments could add more than $1.7 million to the city budget.

In terms of taxes, the mayor's proposal would have cost the owner of a $175,000 home an additional $3 in annual taxes next year, not considering heightened property valuations. But providing ongoing funding for a new Housing Trust Fund could double that increase. And the public safety amendment could tack another $24 onto the annual tax bill for such a home.

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At large Councilor Zack Filipovich stressed that Monday's vote simply was to establish the maximum amount the city could potentially levy, with the budget to be finalized before the calendar flips to 2022.
"No one likes raising taxes, and that is not the vote that we are taking tonight," he said. "I want to be very clear that this is the maximum amount that we will be able to raise property taxes at the end of the year."

Filipovich said he hopes to work with fellow councilors and city administration to whittle down the levy as much as possible, while still addressing many of the city's pressing needs.

At present, 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf said Duluth police are underpaid compared to many of their peers in the state, and that spells potential trouble.

"We need to recruit and retain the best," she said. "We ask these men and women to go into life-and-death situations. So, they need to be highly trained. They have to be mentally and emotionally fit. They need to have a passion for serving. They need to be brave and have strong ethics. They need to be extremely knowledgeable and have respect for people and for the laws that protect us all. So, we're asking them to be superhuman. And we need to be sure that our pay recruits the best of the best."

The city has dedicated $1.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to support a three-year crisis intervention program designed to provide an alternative to conventional police response to calls involving nonviolent issues, including those requiring mental health care.

The proposed additional levy would ensure that those services remain available after federal funding runs out, said 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson.

"That, I believe, is something we owe to our community. I don't believe that we can rightfully say we're going to start a program for three years and then not take responsibility for funding it in the future," he said.

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"Our community really has let us know that they want to see a program like this created in Duluth, and it's a creation that is in progress," Anderson said.

"What we do know is that everyone needs to know that they can safely reach out for help when they are in crisis," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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