Lake County is gearing up to fight the U.S. Forest Service's recent appraisal of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Residents of the unincorporated community of Toimi gathered in the former Toimi School on Tuesday, July 16, for the Lake County Board of Commissioners meeting, where County Administrator Matt Huddleston gave an update on the situation.
In 1948, U.S. lawmakers passed the Thye-Blatnik Act to buy resorts and private lands in what’s now become the BWCAW. This bill also ensures payments in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT) funds to the counties that surround the area to offset the lost private property taxes.
The bill also requires an appraisal be completed every 10 years to determine how much Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties receive of these funds.
In June, commissioners heard from the Forest Service that the county would receive a 53% reduction, which will mean $1.3 million in PILT revenue annually. Cook and St. Louis counties would also see reductions, but Lake could see the biggest.
"What that means for the county is $1.3 million annually over the next 10 years, which is a big chunk of money," Huddleston said. "When you look at our levy, to make up for that difference, we'd have to raise the levy 12.65 or something close. So it's a big deal."
Since Lake County received the appraisal information, its been working to conduct its own appraisal with the Lake County Assessor's office. The three counties are also consulting with John Vigen, an appraisal office in Duluth, to present arguments against the reductions. The counties were given an Aug. 1 deadline to submit their comments.
"The assessors have drafted a document which I think really makes the case for a higher per-acre value," Huddleston said. "It’s an astronomical number lower than where we’re at, so when we look at it, it’s just not supportable. I feel like we have a strong argument, so we’ll have to see how that process plays out."
Meanwhile, the County Board is about to enter the 2020 budget process, with a looming $1.3 million possible cut overhead.
"We're trying to address what that may mean, especially if we don’t hear back from the Forest Service in that time," Huddleston said. "So we’re wrestling with that and every department is well aware of what that situation might mean."
The County Board will likely hear the issue again at its meeting Tuesday, July 23, as the Aug. 1 deadline draws closer.