County approves maximum levy increase of 6.05 percentCarlton County commissioners endorsed the maximum allowed proposed tax levy increase on Tuesday, but they pledged they would go back to the drawing board to try to bring that figure down further before the end of the year.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Carlton County commissioners endorsed the maximum allowed proposed tax levy increase on Tuesday, but they pledged they would go back to the drawing board to try to bring that figure down before the end of the year.
In a unanimous vote, the board OKed a proposed maximum 2014 levy increase of 6.05 percent. Once the maximum levy is passed, the county cannot raise it any higher, but it can adjust it downward when it adopts the final levy in December.
At the Aug. 26 meeting of the board, County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert warned commissioners that the county may be restricted by recent legislative action to an increase as low as 1.68 percent, which would have barely covered the cost of negotiated benefits and little else. That figure, which was an estimate based on the facts at hand at that time, came in at the higher figure when the state sent the actual levy limits to the counties on Sept. 1.
Commissioner Gary Peterson indicated he wasn’t at all comfortable with the proposed increase.
“I don’t like that 6.05 figure,” he said. “We really have to work on it.”
Board Chair Bob Olean stated the county’s department heads have already been given direction to pare their proposed budget figures down.
“It will come down from there,” predicted Olean, “but it will take some work.”
Among proposed increases in the 2014 budget are an additional 2.48 percent for Road and Bridge, 9.13 percent for Human Services and 6.86 percent for bonded indebtedness. Several new positions had initially been proposed as well, but Gassert indicated they probably won’t be approved.
The board set the time and date for the hearing on the final 2014 proposed property tax levy for Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. and the County Transportation Building on Old Highway 61 just south of Highway 210.
Last year’s final levy increase came in at 2.93 percent.
In other business, the board endorsed a temporary moratorium on the sale and use of synthetic drugs in the county to give commissioners time to consider an ordinance restricting such activity.
“There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the use and manufacture of synthetic drugs and the harm they have caused,” said County Coordinator Dennis Genereau, citing various incidents in Duluth as well the highly publicized dispute with Jim Carlson, owner of The Last Place on Earth, who had been reportedly selling synthetic drugs until a pending court case temporarily shut his operation down.
Genereau said the county has obtained a copy of a similar ordinance passed recently by the city of Proctor, which he said is “one of the toughest in the Northland,” as well as the ordinance under consideration by the city of Cloquet restricting the establishment of new businesses selling or manufacturing synthetic drugs. He suggested the county pass a moratorium on such activity until it has time to consider an ordinance.
A public hearing to consider community input on the issue will be set for the near future.
Commissioners continued a discussion from an earlier meeting regarding the proposed routing of Enbridge’s Sandpiper pipeline through Carlton County. Land Commissioner Greg Bernu presented a letter he had drafted to his fellow land commissioners in Aitkin and Cass counties in hopes of generating mutual support for routing the pipeline along the existing Soo Line trail instead of across large portions of private forests and farmlands, as is currently proposed by Enbridge. Bernu said the land commissioners would then bring the letter to their respective boards for their endorsement before sending the letters along to Enbridge.
Basically, the letter states that while the county greatly appreciates having Enbridge consider routing its new pipeline across Carlton County and recognizes how important the pipeline will be in meeting the energy needs of the country, the three counties encourage Enbridge to consider the Soo Line tail as a viable alternative to the current proposal.
Janaki Fisher-Merritt, owner and operator of a sustainable farming operation in Wrenshall who produces market vegetables for much of the area, told commissioners that he reviewed the letter and wished to make some comments to the board. He explained that the route being proposed by Enbridge would run through a portion of his cropland and forest land.
“While I really appreciate the board being in on the issue early on,” said Fisher-Merritt, “I would encourage you not to send the current letter because I believe it could do more harm than good by putting the county in a position of weakness….I think it’s important to negotiate from a position of strength. There is no real danger that the county will scare Enbridge off, because it would be too costly to swing further south and they aren’t going to route it through Lake Superior….I think we instead need to have a fairly strong response. Otherwise, they will do what they think they can get away with.”
Fellow Wrenshall land owner Brenda Schillo was also at Tuesday’s board meeting. She urged commissioners not to rush into crafting their response and to take some time in wording it from a position of strength.
“Be vocal about it but don’t feel it’s a hurry-up thing,” Schillo encouraged.
She informed the board that Enbridge is currently looking to assess whether they will still need the current Alberta pipeline, which she said runs a half-mile from her house. She also indicated that it will be up to the Public Utilities Commission to decide whether there is a certified need for a new pipeline, which she said could take some time to settle.
Finally, Schillo voiced her endorsement for consideration of the Soo Line trail for the proposed pipeline.
“If Enbridge decided to go with the Soo Line,” she said, “there would be more eyes on it than if it went through private land.”
A majority of the land along the Soo Line trail is owned by county, state and federal agencies.
Heather Cunningham, zoning and environmental services administrator, clarified that Enbridge has not yet filed for a certificate of need for the pipeline, but that is expected to happen near the end of September, along with an application for a routing permit.
Commissioner Dick Brenner asked if Enbridge could go over the county’s head in routing the pipeline where it wishes. Cunningham said it can if it meets all the required regulations and the county cannot pass any sort of moratorium to shut out pipeline activity. She added the county can, however, mount a case for the advantages of one route over another.
“Your voice is very important” reminded Fisher-Merritt.