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Our Opinion: Flat tax levy a cause for concern

For the past eight years, certain Crow Wing County Board members have held up their flat tax levy decisions as a success story.

In reality, it has been a dangerous exercise in governing, nothing more than a political prop to wave around at constituents while potentially mortgaging the county's future and the taxpayer's investment in it.

It appears to have come to a head Tuesday, as commissioners learned their vote to maintain a flat tax levy would result in the county operating in a budget deficit, meaning it will be spending more money than it takes in. And yet, the flat tax levy plan passed.

It would be one thing if cuts to offset the deficit were discussed, but they were not. Instead, the county will be borrowing from other funds to make up the shortfall, a financial shell game that puts the county in a precarious situation should it face an expensive emergency.

It's a risk the county shouldn't be taking with our money.

This is not the way we expect our representatives on the county board to act as caretakers of our tax dollars and the services they provide. We commend commissioners Doug Houge and Rachel Reabe Nystrom, both of whom voted against keeping the levy flat, for acting in the best interest of the county.

Houge put it succinctly: "I think we've actually cut into the bone, and it's just too deep. I know that we've rode a nice little seven-year wave here of zero. ... I think we're at a point where we have to make a tough decision, and that may be a small increase."

Paul Thiede, Paul Koering and Rosemary Franzen voted in favor of the flat tax levy. Thiede explained his reasons in public, that he is comfortable with a flat levy and the idea that other funds can be tapped if needed. Koering and Franzen did not explain their votes.

County staff proposed increasing the levy by 2 percent each of the next four years, followed by a 4 percent increase over the next four years. The effect on taxpayers' bottoms lines would be negligible—$7 on a Brainerd homestead, $25 on a seasonal Crosslake property and $138 on a Baxter commercial or industrial property, to name a few examples. We believe that plan was realistic, and one a majority of Crow Wing County residents would find acceptable. In many cases, the increase to a tax bill would be less than a night out for dinner.

We liken it to using a credit card. Sure, you can use it to live on it for a while, but sooner or later that debt will come due and if you don't have the funding to pay it off the hole dug will be a hard one to climb out of.

At some point, the tax levy will have to increase to pay for services county residents expect and the cost of doing everyday business. Putting off or delaying that decision will only mean it will cost more later, especially if part of those payments go toward debt accrued because of short-sightedness now.

Governing doesn't work in hindsight. Commissioners need foresight to see where their decisions may lead. We hope residents who agree with us will let their commissioners know because maintaining the status quo for eight years may look good now, but could end up being an expensive decision.