Our View: Slimmed-down tax hike still a burdensome tax hike

From the editorial: "Half a million dollars more for the Duluth Transit Authority and an approximately 8% increase in the city tax levy will be a lot to bear in 2023."

Joe Heller
We are part of The Trust Project.

It could have been worse. Still, half a million dollars more for the Duluth Transit Authority and an approximately 8% increase in the city tax levy will be a lot to bear in 2023 for already overburdened Duluthians. And that’s precisely what the Duluth City Council is poised to pass.

Never mind that property owners are already facing valuation increases of hundreds and thousands of dollars that will translate into heftier property-tax bills. Or that St. Louis County and the Duluth school district also are planning tax hikes, that record inflation this year has driven up the cost of everything from groceries to gas and medications to home heating, that a rate increase from Minnesota Power has kicked in, and that our economy is still recovering from the fiscal fallout of COVID-19.

Crying out loud, with the state’s announcement this week of a record, incomprehensibly huge $17.6 billion surplus, property owners shouldn’t be facing any tax increases at all in our state. We should be expecting money back.

The timing and optics of the DTA’s request especially couldn’t have been worse. The authority proposed upping its levy from $1.6 million to $3.9 million, an unfathomable nearly 144% increase. Gas prices are up and ridership is down about 40% from prior to the pandemic, DTA officials argued.

Rather than going to cash-strapped taxpayers for more money, though — and lots, lots more money to boot — the DTA can first adjust budgets, routes, capital expenses, and more to reflect new realities. Like the rest of us, especially now, the authority can make tough decisions to continue living within its changing means.


And the DTA can stop sitting on about $9 million of $18.2 million it has received from D.C. in pandemic relief. That money — from us taxpayers, too, by the way — was meant to be spent to get through these difficult days, to be a bridge to recovery. Encouragingly, the DTA is using some COVID-19 relief dollars to shore up operations, its officials said. But those dollars can continue to be tapped before funding is sought from local property owners who can’t afford it.

Duluth city councilors agreed with such sentiments this week, trimming the DTA request from $3.9 million next year through a special taxing district to about $2.1 million. While the original request would have been worse, the half-mil increase still represents about a 31% hike. Taxpayers would have appreciated — and deserved — 0%.

Councilors also trimmed Mayor Emily Larson’s proposed 8.9% levy increase to 7.9%, a modest reduction that, while appreciated, also could have been steeper. Consider the COVID-19 relief the city has received, the budget surplus at the state, and the fiscally challenging times strapping us little guys. The city can keep such realities in mind.

Duluthians also could have done without the fear- and guilt-stoking comment from Councilor Noah Hobbs at Monday’s council meeting that reducing the levy increase even 1% could negatively impact city services. “Do we want a lower quality of life?” he asked, according to News Tribune coverage . Please. The city’s likely tax levy increase still stands at a hefty, hard-to-afford nearly 8%.

With us property taxpayers in mind, the City Council still has the opportunity to zero out levies for 2023. A second ordinance reading for next year’s budget is still to be held later this month, before the council can bring it to a final vote for approval.

“To have (my property valuation) raised as well as taxes raised, it almost feels like we’re getting hit twice and punished twice,” Duluth pastor John Ansell told councilors Monday, as the News Tribune reported.

The timing of new spending by the city couldn’t be worse for Duluth property owners like Ansell. Didn’t Duluth voters send that message loudly or clearly enough in November when they rejected raising the parks levy?

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