Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

County Government Week – April 22-28

This week has been designated National County Government Week. The week is set aside to bring recognition to county government – often called the “hidden governmental unit”. This blog is written with the purpose of bringing this hidden governmental unit into the light.

Of recent interest to the general public regarding Nicollet County is the fact that our county jail is overflowing at the seams. We have regularly been housing prisoners in other counties. We have the capacity for 30 plus in our facility. (The number varies depending on the classification of prisoners as some must be separated from others.) For some time – we have housed anywhere from 15 to 20 to sometimes 29 prisoners in neighboring facilities i.e. Brown County and others.

Jails are a part of law enforcement which is a huge part of county government. Costs to run jails and the subsequent criminal justice system are large. The job requires 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The only other job like it when it comes to time commitment is “being a parent”. Here is one example of the cost. The county board approved bills for providing meals yesterday. The costs were: breakfast $2.45, lunch $3.60, dinner $5.19 and sack lunches (for Huber or sentence to serve prisoners) $3.33. There is also a $3.00 delivery charge for each set of meals each day. The meals are meager fare, but these numbers also give a glimpse of the costs of housing prisoners. In a future report, I will share some medical costs. These are horrendous. end

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Privilege of Paying Taxes

If today weren’t Sunday, it would be the deadline day for paying income taxes. United States citizens are doing the math to determine our taxes owed for last year or we are filling out the forms in anticipation of a return. County property tax statements have been received and county and city boards of review (which deal with valuations, not taxes) are being held. The Minnesota legislature is talking about taxes. The issue of taxes is really “out there” at this time. Most of the time we speak with disgust about paying taxes and we might yearn to live in a country where we did not have this obligation. Like many thoughts and desires, this one has a very big devil in the detail.

According to Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat”; countries that have an abundance of rich natural resources like gold or oil – never have to tax their people. As a result, a democratic society is retarded. As long as a ruler or ruling class can control the natural resources, they can control the instruments of power like the army, the police, and intelligence. This control means they never have to share power and a distorted relationship between the citizens and the rulers is developed. They never have to tax their people; nor do they have to pay attention to them or explain how they are spending their money. They are not spending money raised through taxes so there is no accountability. As Friedman states, “Without taxation, there is no representation.”

I for one am glad to live in a country where I can pay taxes. Granted, most of us do not enjoy paying taxes; but I think most of us are willing to pay taxes as long as we feel the money is being spent wisely. This is where trust comes in. We put our trust in elected officials to make the decisions to meet the needs of our citizens in the most efficient manner. We also put our trust in other governmental employees who are hired to deliver programs and services paid for by our tax dollars.

It appears that the officials in Minnesota are doing a pretty good job. A recent Reality Check on Channel 4 news showed that Minnesota ranks 18th among the 50 states in taxes. We were 37th in property tax and 27th in gas tax and 21st in sales tax. Of course, I am taking a chance by presenting any kind of ranking as various groups have various ways of using figures to tell different stories. I am sure there are places that I could go and live where I could pay less in taxes. But somehow, I kind of like good schools, good roads, and people who take a bit of pride about where they live. I have traveled through and visited a number of other states. There was only one, other than Minnesota, that I felt I might want to live in.

I have attended a few conferences and meetings on the national level and visited with folks from other states. To put it nicely, other states just do not work like Minnesota does and I always come home, thankful that my ancestors decided to settle here. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that you get what you pay for and I believe that people who invest in their communities (in the form of paying taxes) are more inclined to take ownership and work to improve those communities. And going a bit farther, I believe these people will hold the spenders of their tax dollars accountable.

Friedman states that the taxes we pay focus on developing people. We do this by developing institutions like: rule of law, property rights, independent courts, modern education, foreign trade, freedom of thought and other efforts that get the most from our most valuable resource – people. end

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Property Tax Reform In 2007?

Last fall, the newly elected Minnesota legislature did quite a bit of talking about reforming property taxes. I haven’t heard much about it since the session started. Ah, yes, you say. Just wait, the session isn’t over. I guess we can hope that some meaningful reform will come about. My definition of meaningful reform is – simplify, simplify, simplify! The system is so complicated that almost no one can understand it or try to explain it to the average citizen. If we look at the topic historically – reform has come because of a huge public outcry. That does not seem to be happening at this time. Rep. Paul Marquart tried to get some movement going. He set up a special website for citizens to comment on ways to reform the system. I hope he got lots of suggestions.

Information from the Fall, 2006 issue of the Fiscal Focus, a newsletter of the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, states that meaningful property tax reform has happened several times. The first came during the time of the “great depression”. It is hard to imagine today, but there was a time when valuations on property did not enjoy double digit increases year after year. In fact valuations decreased and along with that the ability to generate revenue for governmental units decreased. It must have been devastating to live during that time and see the value of your home and/or business get smaller and smaller each year. The true and full value of taxable real estate in Minnesota fell from $4,525 million in 1924 to $3,327 in 1944. Along with that, there was the issue of per capita income of Minnesota taxpayers. Instead of getting wage increases every year; people were glad to go to work at jobs and receive less in wages than they did the year before. The depression had such a dramatic effect that it took more than eleven years for per capita income to recover. (Per capita income in 1929 was $1,443 and in 1940 it was $1,424.)

At that time over three fourths of all state and local taxes in Minnesota were derived from property taxes. With less money to run the government, there were few choices. The obvious one was to cut spending. There were other suggestions, namely to enact an individual income tax. This idea was dropped at first – but did come into fruition at a later date. With help from a friendly press, taxpayers prevailed and expenditures were cut appropriately. There were 67 counties that had county taxpayer associations. They met with local officials and reviewed budgets and helped to plan reductions.

The next time period for reform was during the mid 1960’s and 70’s. In 1967, the legislature enacted a sales tax at a rate of 3%. The proceeds were to be dedicated entirely to property tax relief. Other taxes were also increased and property tax relief was provided in the form of a new homestead credit and many other credits for various groups. Additional aids were granted to cities and to school districts. However, in the years that followed there was a substantial increase in local levies and citizens asked for limits on local levy increases. This issue kept the Minnesota legislature in a special session in 1971. They adjourned on May 24, started a special session the next day and did not adjourn until October 30. (There was a recess from July 31 to October 12.) The result was what has sometimes been called the Minnesota Miracle. They raised the state share of the cost of funding schools to 70%, expanded homestead credit, eliminated the state property tax and passed a local government aid program. They also enacted levy limits for all local governments. Corporation and individual income taxes were increased and the sales tax went up another 1%. The end result over the next decade showed that while property taxes increased slightly; other non property taxes were picking up the difference. There was one added benefit during the 1970’s. That was the fact that personal income was rising rapidly. From 1971 to 1981 per capita income nearly tripled.

During the 1970’s, efforts focused on tinkering with the classification system to shift the tax burden away from some citizens and more toward others. In 1997 and 1998, the legislature acted to decrease the disparities between residential and business property. In 2001 reform suggested by Governor Ventura resulted in the least distance between these two classes of property since the late 1970’s.

Reforming the property tax system means different things to different people. Usually organizations want a smaller tax burden. A smaller burden means less spending and fewer programs. I do not find it realistic to expect less overall spending in a state that is increasing in population. More people generally equates to more needs. Do the citizens really want less in regard to government? Do we want fewer choices for our students? Is there a state university campus that should be eliminated? Do citizens want fewer police or deputies on patrol? Do they want fewer snowplows clearing streets? Should cities have fewer parks and expect volunteers to mow the grass; street lights every third block, and eliminate swimming pools and ball fields? These suggestions might bring property tax relief; but to me, reform is a different issue. Reform puts a balance or type of fairness into the system. For example, the removal of funding of schools with ag land to me was a reform. It goes without saying that land does not produce students, but homes do. This type of reform should be the goal. Add to that a complete renovation of the system to make it simpler and easier to understand. Strive for fairness, balance, simplicity and understanding in a property tax system. end

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Burn Barrels Discouraged

Yesterday, the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution supporting the application for a grant to support public education regarding the use of burn barrels. County officials have known for some time that the use of burn barrels by the public is not in the best interest of air quality.
Mark Rust, pollution prevention specialist with MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) states that burn barrels are “perfect dioxin factories". According to Rust, burning one pound of household garbage in a backyard barrel can emit as much dioxin as burning one ton of garbage in a municipal incinerator. The MPCA is educating county commissioners to hopefully have burning barrels eliminated by 2010. Currently backyard burning is illegal in Minnesota, except on farms where regular garbage service is not available. Rust indicated there are about 500,000 rural residents who use burning barrels. The state has allocated $150,000 in grants for incentives for programs to eliminate burn barrels.
When this writer asked county staff, “How much is it going to cost me to not use a burn barrel?” The answer was not entirely clear. There are estimates of $30 - $50 a month for garbage pick up in the rural area. It is dependent on how many pick-ups can be made in one locality i.e. economies of scale. This writer urged county staff to work with township officials to initiate area garbage collection as a way to reduce costs. end