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Ramsey County hearing spotlights taxes vs. services dilemma

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St. Paul resident Greg Copeland
St. Paul resident Greg Copeland criticized Ramsey County's proposed 1.7 percent property tax levy increase at a public hearing Monday night. "You know you can operate this county on less money," Copeland told the members of the County Board. He also derided a proposal to build a new NFL stadium in the county using public money. The hearing was held at Roseville Area High School.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

This is the time of year when cities, counties and school districts around Minnesota hold so-called "Truth in Taxation" hearings, and about 250 Ramsey County taxpayers turned out last night at Roseville Area High School to ask the county board to protect public services, plea for lower taxes and largely criticize a proposal to build a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium in the county.

Even though the board has proposed a 3 percent spending cut, the property tax levy will still rise 1.7 percent under the county's preliminary budget. Many cities and school districts in the county are raising their levies, too. That means some homeowners could see dramatic property tax increases. Jerome Guettler is one of them, and he told the board he can't afford it.

"My business is off 50 percent," he said. "When I do get work, my wage is off 15 percent. And last year my taxes went up 10 percent. Now you're proposing another 18 and a half percent. When I first bought house in St. Paul in '88 it was $600 a year. It's approaching $3,200-a-year. That's just not acceptable."

But there were equally passionate appeals to protect public services. Joyce Carlson said she has lived in the county almost her whole life, and she values the things her taxes support.

"I've used the parks. I've used the libraries. And I appreciate that with less and less resources from the state and from the feds, that you have been good stewards of public services and thank you," she said.

Ramsey County expects to lose about $12 million in state and federal aid next year. The proposed levy increase will make up for about a third of that. The rest will be balanced with cuts.

Tricia Heitman-Ochs, a social worker in neighboring Dakota County who lives in St. Paul said Ramsey County's budget balancing proposal leaves her feeling torn.

"I absolutely understand about the need for these kind of services. I provide these kinds of services," she said. "But then, I get a tax bill, or proposed increase, of 25 percent for a home I just bought."

Heitman-Ochs lives in a neighborhood that hasn't been especially hard-hit by the housing crisis. As a result, she and her neighbors will shoulder somewhat more of the tax burden next year. She's not expecting to see a reduction in her proposed taxes at this point, but she wishes the property tax system wasn't so confusing.

And even though the hearing was aimed at giving voters the opportunity to express their concerns about taxes, several in the room had another issue to discuss: using public money to build an NFL Stadium in Ramsey County. Among them was Greg Copeland, who expressed unhappiness with using taxpayer dollars to help build the stadium for the team's wealthy owners.

"How many thousands of dollars have been spent chasing the Viking's Stadium?" he asked. "You know, if you're interested in providing services to the public -- and I guess you are because you're a county commissioner -- then let's spend the money on the people who live in the county rather than some guy from New Jersey who wants a stadium."

One voter spoke in support of the proposed stadium, but the rest of the comments were negative. Commissioner Tony Bennett, who has led the push to build the stadium in Arden Hills, argued it would actually help the county's taxpayers.

"That's money that's going to be spent in our area," he said. "People [will be] spending money in stores and restaurants and whatever in our community. And that means more taxes coming in, hopefully holding property taxes down."

Bennett also chairs the Board's budget committee. He said it's unlikely the budget will change much as a result of last night's hearing. The final vote on the tax levy is Dec. 13.