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State to taxpayers: Don't roll over

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

Don't roll over.

That was the simple message to taxpayers from top officials of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration as they toured the state Wednesday. The comments come as local governments prepare to certify their tax levies for 2006.

"We're here …; to tell taxpayers they do not have to roll over and accept these proposed property tax increases," said state commissioner of revenue Dan Salomone during a brief news conference at Rochester International Airport. "They can go to the Truth-in-Taxation meetings and tell local officials what they think about them."

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While schools and cities have certified provisional levies, the actual amounts are subject to change. Local governments are forced to set preliminary tax levies before completing their budgets. So they often certify them at the highest amounts allowed by the state to give them the flexibility to make downward adjustments later.

Rochester public schools, for instance, has preliminarily certified its levy at 31.8 percent, an unusually high increase. However, it is looking at a final certification of 18 percent, said Superintendent Jerry Williams.

Critics have accused Pawlenty of undermining the 2001 tax reforms enacted under Gov. Jesse Ventura when the state agreed to take over the costs of basic K-12 education. The $800 million of new K-12 funding in the final budget agreement included $139 million in potential local property tax increases.

But Chas Anderson, deputy commissioner of education, noted that Minnesota still ranks No. 2 in terms of the share of education funding paid by the state.

"The state is still assuming a very large share of education funding, despite some of the property tax increases we're seeing," she said.

Even so, it's not standard practice for state officials to travel the state urging taxpayers to be vigilant. And it comes several weeks after DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza blamed soaring property tax hikes, especially in the schools area, on Pawlenty's pledge not to raise state taxes. Salomone acknowledged the political concerns over the hikes.

"Property taxes are a political problem for everyone in elected office," he said. "It's not a popular tax. Many people think it's unfair."

Rochester was listed among communities expected to see property tax bills rise more than 10 percent, though that figure includes the preliminary levies that probably will be adjusted downward.

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Statewide, property taxes are expected to rise 10.2 percent if proposed levies are adopted, Salomone said. That compares with average increases of 6.6 percent in each of the last two years.

So far, Olmsted County and the city of Rochester have adopted provisional levies of 8.5 percent and 11.2 percent.

Rochester city officials pointed out that 4.1 percent of the proposed 11.2 percent increase is due to new growth and construction. And 5.4 percent reflected re-evaluation of existing property.

Rochester public schools will have its truth-in-taxation hearing at 5 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Edison Building. Olmsted County's is at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at the city-county Government Center, and Rochester's is at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at the government center.

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