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Local View: Parks question doomed by Duluth's dependence on property taxes

From the column: "The size of the ask to local property taxpayers should be based on what is absolutely required to fund the most vital needs, rather than on the basis of what city leaders think they can get."

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2020 News Tribune file photo / Anthony Boyd of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and his mother sit at a picnic table at Brighton Beach in Duluth in August 2020 after strong storms damaged about a dozen trees.
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Does the failure of the recent proposed increase in the Duluth parks levy mean Duluth has suddenly turned anti-government and anti-tax? Does it mean Duluthians no longer love their parks?

Of course not. In the same election in which Duluthians narrowly defeated the parks levy, they voted for DFL candidates for state and federal offices by even wider margins than usual.

Rather, the failure of the parks levy shows what happens when local governments become too dependent on property taxes. The property tax is a regressive tax that can fall quite heavily on people with fixed and limited incomes. Property-tax increases, which have been significant in recent years, can be a real hardship for many in our community, particularly at a time when the cost of living is increasing generally.

In fairness, the factors driving up Duluth’s property taxes are largely beyond the control of our local government. In the 1970s, the Minnesota Legislature created the Local Government Aid program, which was designed to keep property taxes in check by providing state income tax dollars to communities like Duluth. The failure of the state Legislature to adequately fund this program in recent years has put enormous strain on Duluth’s city budget. That and increased health care benefit costs for city workers (a product of this country’s dysfunctional and increasingly out-of-control health care system) are the main culprits behind local property-tax increases.

None of this, of course, makes property-tax increases any less painful to people on fixed and limited incomes. In my eight years on the Duluth City Council, the most difficult challenge I faced was balancing the need to pay for the local services residents need, want, and rely upon against the limited ability of many residents to pay more in property taxes. Unfortunately, too few of our city leaders are sufficiently sensitive to the real hardships that property-tax increases can cause.

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And that, I believe, is the reason the parks levy proposal failed.

Our parks absolutely need additional funding. But if city leaders ask residents to raise the property levy, they have an obligation to first demonstrate that they are truly weighing the need against people's limited ability to pay. That means, for instance, examining the degree to which the city’s aggressive development of new parks and trails infrastructure is placing unsustainable stress on the budget for parks maintenance and unsustainable stress on our parks staff. It means making sure the cost of maintaining tourist-oriented parks and trails is fully funded by tourism-tax revenues rather than by local property taxpayers.

And it means that the size of the ask to local property taxpayers should be based on what is absolutely required to fund the most vital needs, rather than on the basis of what city leaders think they can get.

Had all these steps been taken, I believe the parks-levy proposal would have been approved by a wide margin.

But even had all these steps been taken, we would still be left with the overreliance of local government on property taxes. What is really needed is for the state Legislature to adequately fund the Local Government Aid program. The main reason Local Government Aid has been underfunded is lack of support for the program among Republican legislators. Starting in January, however, the DFL will have a majority in both houses of the state Legislature. All of us (most especially our city leaders) must raise our voices to make sure funding for local government is a high priority for the incoming Legislature. If we don’t, it will become increasingly hard for Duluth to provide the services residents expect and rely upon without property-tax increases that many in our community simply cannot afford.

Joel Sipress of Duluth served on the Duluth City Council from 2014 through 2021. He is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

Sipress
Former Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress

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