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St. Louis County mulls state law change for lower senior taxes

St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously directed county staff to look into possible ways to freeze property tax values for senior citizens.

St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously directed county staff to look into possible ways to freeze property tax values for senior citizens.

State law currently prohibits local governments for giving seniors a special break on how much their home is valued for tax purposes. But Commissioner Pete Stauber of Hermantown said he wants the county to look into leading an effort to change that law.

The resolution notes that 10 states already allow valuation limits or freezing of senior home values for tax purposes, with the option usually left up to the local taxing authority.

County staff said they will take the directive seriously and look into options, most of which would require a change in state law, that would give seniors a break.

Nearly all commissioners said they agreed many seniors are having a hard time paying nearly annual increases in property taxes because they are on retirement incomes that aren't increasing as fast as the tax rate or as fast as the value of their homes - the age-old problem of people being taxed out of their increasingly more valuable houses.

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Minnesota does use state revenue from income and sales taxes to help buy down taxes for some areas of the state, based on the premise that those taxes are more fairly based on someone's financial ability to pay. But those programs are often subject for legislative change and opposition.

The state Legislature needs to take notice that "there are fairer methods of taxing people than property taxes," said Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township.

Concerns were raised that, without more money being funneled into the property tax relief system, any effort to reduce valuations - and thus reduce tax bills - for seniors would simply raise tax bills for younger homeowners and businesses.

County staff noted that senior citizens, on average, are not the poorest demographic in the county.

Commissioner Tom Rukavina of Pike Township said he supports efforts to lower senior citizen tax bills but that "I worry just as hard about people who are middle-aged and working hard and still have a problem paying their taxes."

St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich said that the state sets the rules for how property taxes can be applied and that it will indeed take a change in state law to give seniors a special break.

He also noted that, short of the state pumping more money into the property tax relief system, any tax cut for one group would likely lead to a tax hike for others.

Dicklich noted, however, that there already are proposals introduced in the state Legislature to freeze property values for homeowners age 65 and over. The bills, HF 1551 and SF 1682, have not yet received hearings.

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County officials note that there are three programs currently available to senior citizens who are having a problem paying property taxes, including the Senior Citizen Property Tax Deferral Program, the Homestead Credit Refund Program on state income tax forms and the Special Homestead Credit Refund for unusually large property tax hikes in a short time.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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