Lake residents turn increasingly to taxes to fight aquatic invaders

Rose Lake
Portions of Rose Lake in northern Minnesota, in this photo taken Sept. 12, were treated with copper sulfate last fall in hopes of stopping a zebra mussel infestation. The tiny mollusk was not yet well established when it was discovered. The DNR is currently monitoring the lake, but so far it appears the pesticide is working. Residents around some Minnesota lakes have increasingly started forming lake improvement districts with the authority to levy property taxes, and usually the reason is to help pay to fight the growing problem of invasive species.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Minnesota lake residents are turning to what until recently had been a little-used means of fighting aquatic invasive species — they're taxing themselves.

Residents around lakes have increasingly started forming lake improvement districts with the authority to levy property taxes, and usually the reason is to help pay to fight the growing problem of invasive species.

But some argue that creating such districts is really a stopgap and places the burden in the wrong place.

The Legislature authorized lake improvement districts in the 1970s, letting local authorities create special taxing districts that typically consisted of properties directly fronting on a lake.

Until 2005, it was a little-used law, averaging less than one new district every year in the land of 10,000 lakes, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

But in the past few years, the average has climbed to more than three a year as more lake property associations seek the power to generate revenue, said Kathleen Metzker, who oversees the districts for the DNR.

"As they have success and they have satisfactory outcomes, other lake associations will learn about it and we're going to see even more interest in lake improvement districts in the coming years, because the aquatic invasive species problem is here to stay," Metzker said.

Zebra mussel warning
A sign warns boaters and other lake-goers about the presence of zebra mussels in Pelican Lake at a public access, July 12, 2012. There are a number of ways to create a lake improvement district, but generally, a majority of lake residents must petition the county board. The DNR oversees the lake improvement district program, but county commissioners approve the districts, and counties manage the new unit of government.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

There are a number of ways to create a lake improvement district, but generally, a majority of lake residents must petition the county board.

The DNR oversees the lake improvement district program, but county commissioners approve the districts, and counties manage the new unit of government.

Crow Wing County in the Brainerd lakes region has eight lake improvement districts, more than any other county. In Crow Wing County the tax levied on each resident varies from lake to lake and ranges from $50 to $150 per year.

Because of the growing interest from voluntary lake associations, the county spent two years developing a better process to manage them, said Crow Wing County Land Services Supervisor Chris Pence.

"I think we had a lot of folks who didn't understand the importance of what it means to be a lake improvement district," Pence said. "It's really not just simply a lake association with tax authority, but it really is another unit of government and with that comes certain requirements."

Changing lake culture
Swimmers at at Pelican Lake, July 12, 2012. Invasive species in many Minnesota lakes is changing lake culture. Residents around lakes have increasingly started forming lake improvement districts with the authority to levy property taxes to help pay to fight the growing problem of invasive species.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

The requirements include a plan for how the money will be spent, annual financial reports to the county and liability insurance.

Pence said the key requirement is a narrowly defined plan for how tax revenue will be spent to improve the lake.

"When you go in to it with eyes wide open, and understand that you're a lake improvement district, and that you're representing people and that you're spending tax dollars, I think it can be effective in the limited role it plays," Pence said. "It all depends if it's done right."

Creating a lake improvement district is often a contentious issue. Some lake residents want action and they're willing to pay. Others complain they're being taxed out of their homes.

This summer a request for a lake improvement district in Aitkin County turned into a battle of petitions. Lake association members on Lake Minnewawa petitioned the county board for an improvement district. Other lake residents gathered signatures urging the county to reject the proposal.

The county will hold a referendum vote on the issue next summer.

Lake Minnewawa resident James Bradley acknowledged that the lake has high nutrient levels and parts of it are choked with vegetation that includes invasive species. But he fought the proposal because he didn't think money raised through an improvement district would do enough to solve the problem.

"We don't feel like we're getting the help we should be getting from the state," he said. "The only hope we see is maybe through the LID where we're doing it ourself. And we want to make sure we're using the money properly for a solution, not just to postpone the problem."

Bradley says if the lake improvement district takes a more aggressive approach to water quality improvement, he'll vote for it next summer.

Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property owners group, said he worried that the expansion of lake improvement districts will simply shift the cost of protecting Minnesota lakes from the state to property owners.

"It's like the lakeshore owners are the Dutch boy with their fingers in the dike. They're there and they see the problem and they're concerned and they do what they can, but ultimately it's not a long-term solution."

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