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Saxhaug meets with Cass County Board

WALKER – State Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, met with Cass County commissioners Tuesday to reflect on 2013 legislation and to learn issues Cass officials want the 2014 session to address.

Payments in lieu of taxes the state pays to counties has increased, Saxhaug said. Funding to Mississippi Headwaters Board (MHB) was restored, which has enabled MHB to hire an executive director after operating several years without one, he added.

When he noted the state sales tax exemption for local governments, Chief Financial Officer Larry Wolfe said Cass has estimated, based on 2013 expenditures that the exemption will save Cass County just over $100,000 this year.

Administrator Robert Yochum asked Saxhaug for a state refund of sales tax Cass and the majority of rural counties have paid for equipment to install their new ARMER radio communications systems.

Metro area counties and Itasca County were exempt from that tax under special legislation, which did not extend statewide, Yochum said. That sales tax cost Cass about $250,000.

If the Legislature is concerned about how such a refund would be spent, Yochum suggested the Legislature specify that it must go toward upgrading similar law enforcement programs.

Auditor-Treasurer Sharon Anderson asked Saxhaug to extend the sales tax exemption this year to include local government joint powers groups. Current law excluded any organization made up of multiple counties or cities. She also asked the senator to consider updating the state’s data privacy regulations in light of the fact there has been a sweeping series of lawsuits from people who objected to viewing their driver license data. There are over 300 lawsuits statewide against counties and additional suits against cities, she said. While protecting data is important, she noted, the way current law reads, claimants do not have to show they have been harmed in any way to get financial gain from these lawsuits.

Recorder Katy Norby asked the senator to re-evaluate legislation approved last session, which will limit public access to records on land ownership. While this was designed to keep safe people who are afraid for their safety if their land ownership record is known, Norby said it will be difficult to make private such records that have been public.

The commissioners asked Saxhaug to support efforts to remove the 2013-enacted sales tax on warehouses and on machinery repairs, which will affect farmers and loggers among other business owners. They also asked Saxhaug to reconsider 2013 legislation that essentially requires local governments to use the same list of requirements as the state to qualify contractors to bid for government projects worth $25,000 or more. Yochum said Cass has its own set of requirements, which have been sufficient to protect the county against irresponsible contractors. The new state law will be so restrictive that many small business owners will be excluded from bidding on county projects., he said.

Saxhaug asked Yochum to provide him a copy of Cass’s requirements to compare with the state law.

Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson thanked the senator for approving money from the state’s Lessard/Sams Outdoor Heritage Act (the 3/8th cent voter approved sales tax) for Cass County projects to buy land to consolidate holdings, improve access to county owned land and connect recreational trails.

Cass is in its fifth year of anticipated funding with an $800,000 request this year, Stevenson said. He also noted the fact the county has offered for sale land acreages to the public which are not contiguous to larger county tracts.

Saxhaug suggested Stevenson should encourage other county land departments to tap that fund. He said Cass has been a leader in seeking funding.

Cass Soil and Water Conservation District Chair Jim Ballenthin thanked Saxhaug for supporting state programs to help private land owners manage their forests.