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Residents speak out, offer ideas to lower county taxes

Lee Anderson shares his concerns with the County Board of Commissioners about his home values rising and not being able to continue to live in his home. Jamie Lund / Pine Journal

A feeling of dismay tinged with anger filled the room as residents gathered for the Carlton County Board of Commissioners' Truth in Taxation public hearing Tuesday, Dec. 11.

Chairperson Susan Zmyslony began the hearing at 6 p.m. to a gathering of about 30 residents and county employees.

The board was allowed to address only budget issues, not the valuation and classifications of their homes and properties, a common point of confusion for some residents.

The majority of the residents in attendance said they were concerned about their property values and the effect rising taxes were having on retired people on a fixed income.

Zmyslony read through the 2019 proposed levy set in September 2018, stating the 2019 proposed levy is $27.83 million compared to 2018 at $26.64 million, which is a difference of $1.2 million, or 4.5 percent. The commissioners are still working to lower the amount. Zmyslony said they have lowered it to 3.9 percent since September proposed levy was set.

Working on the budgets and levy is a long process involving many departments, committees and hours.

"I have participated as a member of the finance committee and have been very vocal on decreasing taxes," Zmyslony said. "I commend the Carlton County staff on their diligence in working on their budgets, making the necessary cuts and responding to my request to lower the levy."

A few of the larger changes are general operations, mostly due to health insurance and building maintenance costs. There is an additional $150,000 added to the proposed levy to help with some of the maintenance costs.The Carlton County Courthouse is almost 100 years old and needs maintenance, repairs and updates, such as furnace repairs, like a residential home, only larger.

Other changes include a 3 percent increase for general wages, a 10 percent health insurance increase, an additional $80,000 Child in need of Protection (CHIPS) legal services, $200,000 increase in projected interest income and $80,000 for additional maintenance/services costs in IT offices.

While the meeting was specifically for budget issues, the board listened to residents from Esko, Cloquet, Barnum and Moose Lake as they voiced their concerns and frustrations over their home values rising.

There was a common theme of concern of taxes going up faster than income and the ability to stay in their beloved homes of many years as they reach retirement age.

"We need to move so we have some retirement saving left," Cloquet resident Lee Anderson said.

Keith Beal of Esko said he feels like he is paying the price for having expensive neighbors.

"It's too late for us; we're leaving," Beal said. "We can't afford to retire in seven years if we stay, so we're moving now."

Carlton County Assessor Kyle Holmes was present and addressed the concerns and explained how the process works. One of the reasons property taxes may go up or down is other property sales in the area. "There were 435 good or acceptable residential sales as determined by the state last year in Carlton County," Holmes said. "We have seen more $500,000 to $800,000 residential sales in the last one to two years than in the entire history of the county."

He said last year, many residents in Thompson Township, where Beal lives, probably would have seen an overall value increase around 8 percent to 12 percent.

He invited residents to call him with questions at 218-384-9142 in the next four to six weeks about home values.

A few people said they are upset because they feel they are being penalized for "mowing their yards," a sarcastic euphemism for maintaining their property. Another man elicited laughs of understanding from other residents when he said he and his wife had a few brandies after they opened their 2019 proposed tax statement.

Longtime Cloquet resident Clarence Badger spoke to the board about his frustrations of his home values rising from $40,000 when he built it in the 1970s to the current value of $248,000. He is a long-retired Cloquet school teacher on a fixed income. He noted that he speaks each year to the commissioners, but nothing changes.

Kim Smith showed up with her two sons to share her concerns with the board.

She is not retired, but a single mom trying to keep her boys in their Cloquet home.

"Wage increases are not keeping up with the tax increases," Smith said. "This has to stop. I don't want to sell. What do you do?"

Several residents said they only see taxes increasing and want to know how the board is going to stop that.

District 5 County Commissioner, Gary Peterson raised his hand.

"I am one of the people getting the 1 percent raise ... for the next five years," Peterson said.

He explained he had called Holmes earlier in the day to discuss taxes and that the costs need to lower.

"We do have mandates," Peterson said. "There is a Veterans Exclusion Mandate by the state, which the county needs to pay in the amount of $48 million." He said he has gone and lobbied several times for the state to take over the mandate they forced on the county. He would like to see the state pick up the costs and relieve already struggling counties.

A disabled veteran in Minnesota can receive a property tax exemption if they are 70 percent disabled or more.

While that does help the veterans, it causes the responsibility for the unpaid portion of the taxes to shift onto the shoulders of their neighbors.

The board listened to the residents' concerns and asked for ideas of where costs could be cut. A few responses were the Sheriff's Office and Health and Human Services.

Badger urged residents to make sure they look into property tax refunds. Information can be found on the Carlton County website, or on the back of the property tax statements (not proposed property tax statements) owners receive in the mail.

Zmyslony encourages all residents to attend the Board of Commissioners meetings to see how the process works and how decisions are made through the year.

The final levy will be set at the Dec. 26 meeting.