Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.

    Because none of us likes to pay property taxes, a study of the “Proposed Taxes 2018” mailing that comes each year in late November is always a must. The first look at that mailing goes to the total tax listed on the bottom line. After that, the focus goes to a comparison of the different units of government that make up that total and how they have changed from a year ago.

    When there are significant changes/increases, we look for answers as to why. A part of that question can often be answered in the upper right corner of the page where the property’s valuation is shown.  It was changes in valuation that triggered several people to come to the Polk County “Truth in Taxation” session held last Tuesday evening.

    Truth in Taxation meetings are supposed to be about that particular local government unit’s (county, city/township, school districts, and other taxing districts) plans for spending in the next year, not about valuation… but valuation still becomes the topic of discussion. The County Board has always allowed people to question their valuations at the meeting.

Valuation reviews

    By state law, 20 percent of all parcels in the county are to undergo a valuation review each year… that’s once every five years. Sales of comparable properties are one of the main considerations in those reviews but there are other factors, too.  When significant adjustments are required (usually upward), property owners, want to know why. That’s, of course, their right, as it should be.

    The flip side of the valuation change issue is often that the property had been “under-valued” in previous years and, as result, the needed adjustment became significant. That was usually the case for owners of residential properties in the areas that were reviewed in the past year. In general, these valuations — again largely based on sales of comparable properties — went up.

Ag land valuations

    By contrast, the valuations of tillable ag lands have mostly gone down or remained the same. These reductions were based upon sales that no longer correspond to the appraised values that were appropriate when per-acre sale prices were higher. Blanket decreases have been made in a number of townships, mainly in the western Polk County.

    Those decreases, based upon more recent sales, may not have been enough. They will be considered for next year. The irony of ag land valuations — again based upon sales — is that they go up faster than they come down. That happens because landowners are more likely to sell when the market is going up than they are when it is going down.  When land isn’t sold, the higher valuation numbers remain in place since the lack of sales doesn’t establish the valuations with any connection to reality. The correction is coming but, for many, it isn’t coming nearly fast enough.

    One point that needs to be made here is that Polk County has very good appraisers. Simply said, they are very good at what they do… they are well trained in appraising and they are committed to doing the job right within the state rules and regulations.
Then, about the budget subject

    The levy for 2018 has been increased just a touch over 3.5 percent. If your valuation hasn’t really changed, this won’t amount to much of an increase in your tax liability.  Remember, this is for the “county portion” of the total tax bill. Other units of government will have to defend their numbers.

    Cushioning the levy increase is the addition of $25.65 million in “new construction“ valuation that has been added to the tax roles this year. Increases in the valuation of existing properties total another $125.5 million. These increases in valuation spread the cost of any new spending to a larger tax base. With the additions, the county now has $5.57 billion in valuation.

    The goal of the County Board has been to hold levy increases — that’s the net effect of new spending — to about 3 percent… something close to the rate of inflation. Over the past nine years, the average levy increase has been 2.57 percent.

    The 3.5 percent bump for 2018 includes election year expenses and other one-time costs that won’t have to be repeated in 2019. Some of the 3.5 percent increase will be used just to cover the 3 percent across-the-board salary increase negotiated for employees.

Use of reserves

    The county plans to use almost $800,000 from its reserves mainly to fund a needed remodeling of the Human Services building in East Grand Forks. This will be done to create the additional space requested by the Northwestern Mental Health Center, to rearrange other officing, and to update the building’s roof and heating and cooling systems. Payback on the use of these reserves will be achieved over five years through the rent/lease payments of the occupants.

    Not a part of the levy is anything associated with the $24.25 million regional solid waste improvement project that is underway. This project includes expansion of the Resource Recovery Facility (commonly known as the “incinerator”) in Fosston along with the installation of new processing equipment there. The project also includes the construction of new transfer stations in Crookston and Park Rapids and the remodeling of the transfer station in Bemidji. And there will be improvements to the compost facility at Gentilly, too.

Project funding

    The project is funded by $17.25 million in state Capital Assistance Program (CAP) grants and by the $7 million in bonds that were sold by Polk County to cover the local-share. Grant funded improvements in Bemidji and Park Rapids are not paid for by Polk County.

    Polk County’s local-share bonds will be repaid through the collection of tipping fees and the sale of recyclable items taken from the waste stream. As a result, none of the cost of this project is levy dependent.

    When completed later in 2018, the six county members who use this waste disposal system will have one of the best solid waste programs in the state. That’s according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In this Christmas season, that amounts to a fantastic gift that will last for years and will provide many opportunities going forward.  
Merry Christmas to all!

    Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.