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County approves preliminary 4.8 percent tax levy increase

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a 4.8 percent preliminary levy increase on a 3-1 vote. 

Commissioners also set the preliminary 2019 budget at $56.55 million on a 3-1 vote. District 3 Commissioner Jim Nelson, District 1 Commissioner Glen Mathiason and District 4 Commissioner Chris Shoff voted yes. District 2 Commissioner Dan Belshan voted no. District 5 Commissioner Mike Lee was absent from the meeting as he recovers from surgery to remove a kidney stone.

Under the preliminary levy, taxes on a $100,000 homestead property would increase $3, with taxes on a $100,000 non-homestead property increasing $4. Taxes on commercial property valued at $200,000 would increase $12. Taxes on an average acre of tillable land would slightly decrease.

The levy can only decrease before it is set Dec. 18.

The 4.8 percent increase — recommended by Administrator Thomas Jensen — was about half as much as the 9.3 percent increase Jensen offered to commissioners, which would have covered approximately $900,000 to fund a 2-mile stretch of Freeborn County Road 49.

The preliminary increase includes a 2 percent increase for cost-of-living adjustments, 1.9 percent to replenish reserves spent in Freeborn County Fairgrounds Grandstand construction, the demolition of the former Oakland School and to help fund the feasibility study done by Quorum Health Resources LLC. on bringing a second health care provider to Albert Lea. An estimated 1 percent of the increase would be for unforeseen expenses and could be eliminated before the final levy is set.

In voting no, Belshan said the average tax burden on 160 acres of non-homestead property in Freeborn County is $9,954, more than double the taxes paid on the same amount of property in Worth County — $4,857.

“I was shocked to see that,” he said.

“Apples to apples, farming in Iowa is a lot cheaper than farming in Minnesota.”

Shoff and Mathiason said Belshan did not understand the differing tax structures of Iowa and Minnesota.

“You can’t argue the dollar amount, but you don’t know anything about the structure of it,” Mathiason said. “They do their tax structure completely different. I’m not saying Minnesota is right by any means, but you can’t make a comparison with Iowa when they don’t do it by evaluation, they do it by productivity.”

Belshan said the board needed to “hold the line” after businesses Bridon Cordage, Herberger’s, Sterling Drug and Fleet Farm Supply announced their closure in Albert Lea in the last year.

“There won’t be an Albert Lea if this continues for the next 10 years,” he said.

Mathiason derided Belshan for saying he would vote down the levy after pushing for the demolition of Oakland school.

“Next time when an issue comes up — like tearing down the Oakland school — don’t push that issue,” Mathiason said.

Belshan responded that the school needed to be torn down because of hazardous conditions in the building and questioned its impact on the levy, which drew derision from commissioners.

“You’re showboating,” Nelson said, going after Belshan for voting to pave the two-mile stretch of Freeborn County 49 but not offering a way to pay for it.

In other action, the board:

Approved benchmark positions and a county employee wage comparison list presented by David Drown Associates on Sept. 11 and moved forward with market and benefit analysis. Action came after Jensen recommended the board invest $400,000 in cost savings to adjust wages to be more competitive to other counties.

Accepted the 2018-19 Toward Zero Deaths enforcement grant of $19,345.

Approved a request by Uniti Towers for a conditional use permit to install a telecommunications facility with a tower, ground equipment and fencing in Freeman Township on a 3-1 vote. Shoff, Nelson and Mathiason voted yes. Belshan voted no after expressing concern about the lack of distance between the tower and a neighboring property, which meets state standards.

Approved a $10,000 Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs yearly outreach grant.

Moved the planned Dec. 4 county board meeting to Dec. 11 so commissioners can attend the annual Association of Minnesota Counties conference.

Set a Nov. 20 workshop.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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