COL For being one of the most reviled taxes a person pays each year, the property tax is also one of the least understood.

The good news is, there's always time to change that. But for you to make a difference this year, time is running short. Once the leaves start to fall, you can be sure the bean-counters in local government are fully engaged in cooking up the coming year's budgets and tax levy.

It's your money -- not to mention your government -- and if you think you're giving up too much of your hard-earned dollar, or you just want to be sure the money is being put to good use, here's a handy guide to watching and influencing the process.

First things first

In most places, the tax levy is set by three entities -- the city, the county and the local school district.

Those units of government have already taken the first step toward finalizing their 2005 budgets, setting their preliminary tax levies at meetings last month.


Don't worry if you missed it. The preliminary levies, sort of a curiosity required by state law, have one function: to set the upper limit for the final levy.

On second thought ...

Don't entirely discount the significance of the preliminary levy figure. History shows that the final levy often winds up being pretty close to the preliminary number.

In Olmsted County, the three governments are starting with combined preliminary levies of $124.3 million. That's about 16 percent higher than the final levies adopted last year.

In Mower County, the governments propose a combined $17.8 million levy, about a 10 percent raise.

So when's the action?

Local governments hold special, state-mandated public hearings, called Truth-in-Taxation hearings, in December. The hearing dates differ for different governments; the dates and times for the hearings in your area will be printed on the tax statement you receive in November.

In places like Rochester, the hearing is a grand public event, held in a chamber. You'll hear a general overview of the budget. If you want to talk, you'll be shown to a microphone.


If that's not your speed -- say you want specific information or you're shy of crowds -- then maybe a lesser-known budget meeting, called a work session, would appeal to you. A common budgeting practice is for elected officials to meet a handful of times with staff members for a line-by-line look at the budget.

In Olmsted County, those meetings are planned for Nov. 29-Dec. 1. Rochester hasn't scheduled its meetings yet. But when they do, notice of that will be published in the newspaper.

You might not get a chance to speak at these work sessions -- they're not public hearings -- but you're able to sit, listen and corral an official or two at a break in the action to ask a question or let them hear your view.

Keep your chin up

Don't be discouraged if your ideas aren't immediately acted upon. Governments are multimillion-dollar businesses, after all. But local government is ultimately accountable to you. Get involved in a volunteer board or commission. There are dozens of vacancies in positions where, with a modest time commitment, you can directly help in setting budgets and service priorities.

-- Jeffrey Pieters

The Big Q is a weekly feature that provides background on issues in the news. To suggest topics for Big Q, send an e-mail to with Big Q in the subject line, or call City Editor Brian Sander at 281-7420.

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