Taxing questions

Residents question assessments, tax bills at county hearing

It’s not one of the world’s great mysteries, but several Washington County taxpayers said they were mystified by how county officials assessed their property for 2013 property taxes.

“My taxes went up 13.4 percent on a $34,000 upward evaluation,” said Mark DuVal of Woodbury. “I don’t understand how my taxes are set.”

“It seems arbitrary,” added Mike Lynch of Woodbury.

DuVal and Lynch were among the seven county residents who spoke at Thursday’s public hearing on the county’s proposed 2013 budget and levy held by the Board of Commissioners.

The state-mandated hearing was held five days before commissioners vote on the proposed ’13 budget and levy at their 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting.

The hearing included a brief review of the budget and levy proposals by Assistant County Administrator Kevin Corbid and assessors from the Property Records and Taxpayer Services Department to go over tax statements with property owners.

Corbid said the county’s proposed 2013 net levy would generate $86.1 million, unchanged from 2012. He added that the county’s Land and Water Legacy Program levy and non-levy revenues would also remain unchanged. The LWLP levy brings in $438,400, while non-levy revenue is $80.1 million.

“This is the third straight year that the county levy has been held flat,” Corbid said.

The county’s total 2013 expenses of $173.4 million also remained unchanged from 2012, according to Corbid. Operating expenses excluding capital and debt service are $142.8 million in 2013, a 2.1 percent increase from last year due to settled labor contracts and re-opening Washington County Library branches on Mondays and the R.H. Stafford branch on Sundays during the school year, he added.

Corbid notes that both the county’s total and operating expenditures have remained steady from 2009 through 2012. Total expenditures were $170.7 million in 2009, $181.4 million in 2011 to $173.4 million last year, while operating expenses went from $146.4 million in ’09 to $139.8 million last year.

“The budget is flat from 2012 to 2013,” he said.

Corbid also said the county is doing more with less money for several reasons. First, he said county officials do not expect to receive its full allotment of county program aid form the state.

Second, the county is helping more residents affected by the slow economy, Corbid said.

“The number of health care cases has grown by a significant amount,” he said. “Similarly, the number of food support cases continues to rise.”

County statistics show county health care cases have gone from 6,939 in 2008 to 9,446 by October this year. Food support cases have gone from 2,056 in ’08 to 4,466 this year.

“We are serving more people than in the past with less money,” he said.

Five of the proposed 11 new positions in the 2013 county budget are in the Community Services Department to handle applications for health care and food support and restaurant and bar licenses.

For many residential taxpayers, the proposed 2013 budget and levy means a lower county tax bill due to a continued decline in home market values. Corbid said about 70 percent of all residential property owners will see either no tax increase or a tax decrease in ’13, while 30 percent will see a tax increase.

But Corbid said Washington County homeowners pay the second lowest property tax in the seven-county metro area. Dakota County homeowners pay the lowest property tax in the metro.

Commercial and industrial property owners and apartment owners will see increased taxes next year, Corbid said.

“Over 80 percent of businesses are seeing a tax increase,” he said.

Those facts brought little comfort to several residents who spoke at the hearing.

“I opened up my letter and my property taxes went up 34 percent. And there was no improvement to my property,” said David Haselbauer of Scandia. “When I get a 34.3 percent tax increase, I’ve got some questions.”

Norman Dupre of Baytown Township estimates that he has paid more than $150,000 in taxes on his farmland in the last 10 years. He was critical of how the county assesses his land.

“The taxable value of my land goes up and down, up and down and I never see an assessor out there,” he said. “I think this guy could spend 20 minutes with me going around explaining what he’s doing.”

Dupre said he has resorted to selling his land to pay his tax bills.

“I’m trying to sell everything I own to pay Washington County year after year,” he said. “Everything I’ve got I try to sell. I want a fair shake from the assessor. I don’t think he’s capable of it.”

Lynch and DuVal both expressed concern about what might happen to residential property taxes if the housing market improves.

“It makes me very nervous if we have a housing recovery in the next several years,” Lynch said.

“If the market ever returns, I don’t how I would pay if my taxes approach my mortgage payment,” DuVal said.