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Hearing draws complaints from taxpayers
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Robert Woolley of St. Paul complained about Ramsey County's plans to build a new golf course while the county faces other budget problems. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
As local governments finish the annual budget process, they are holding public hearings to give property taxpayers a chance to comment on the tax bills they'll get in the new year. This year the meetings occur against the ominous backdrop of a big state budget deficit that has cities, counties -- and taxpayers -- worried about what the future holds. St. Paul residents who attended the Truth in Taxation hearing Tuesday night expressed some of those worries.

St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul's "Truth in Taxation" hearing is an annual event featuring elected officials from all three local taxing jurisdictions. Members of the St. Paul School Board, City Council, and Ramsey County Board of Commissioners sat on a stage and listened to an open mic night of sorts. Residents had two minutes each to tell their version of the truth about taxes.

"Good evening. My name is Nito Quetevas. I'm here to complain about the constant increase in taxes with no attempt to control the spending," said one resident.

A year ago, many Ramsey County residents saw their property taxes decline from the year before. Not so this time. Rising property values, state changes in the property tax system, and spending increases by the county and school district are all pushing taxes higher. A Ramsey County official says the median property tax increase for next year is $153. On residential property, it's $233. Since a property tax bill is the product of many decisions, policymakers can often point out the effect that another government entity has on local taxes. To residents like Trisha Lander of Maplewood, it was convenient to have three levels of government in one room.

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Image The panel of public officials listened to taxpayers' comments

"I question how each of you can be up here representing your own little area of taxation, and say how you personally are not responsible," said Lander. "We have to look at government as a whole and what they're doing to us. Because certainly I pay income taxes as well and sales taxes, in addition to any 48 percent increase you may wish to assess on my property."

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly and one member each from the school board, county board, and city council provided opening remarks. But then they sat down and listened as 40 of their constituents provided feedback. A few were aggressive in their criticism. Robert Woolley was upset about Ramsey County's plans to develop a new golf course.

"The county's building us a golf course. How nice. When we hear from you that 'Gosh, we just wish we could have brought the levy down lower but we couldn't.' B.S. We don't need a golf course, I don't need you to build me a golf course," Woolley said to a round of applause from the audience.

A few of the speakers thanked the public officials and urged them not to be shy about seeking the money needed to provide public services. Patrick Sheehy said he formerly lived in Montana in some cities that were less hospitable.

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Image Patrick Sheehey cautioned against cutting services for the most vulnerable

"We shouldn't take those people who live in those group homes -- that are paid for by your county tax dollars -- and throw them out into the street. But that could happen to those people," Sheehy said. "I lived in a town next to a state hospital and that was one of the policies -- kick them out of the state hospital and they suddenly become street people."

The most frequent complaint involved a part of the Ramsey County levy earmarked for light rail, commuter rail, and redevelopment of St. Paul's Union Depot. Several people urged the county to abandon its rail plans and the associated costs. Finally, there were some general cries for help from people struggling under their tax burden. Andre Gambino says since he purchased a building on St. Paul's Grand Ave. four years ago, the taxes have more than doubled, threatening the viability of his family-run business. Gambino expressed sympathy for the hard choices facing local policymakers, but asked them to tread carefully.

"There are faces, there are people, there are lives behind these addresses. We're not just numbers. There are real human beings whose lives are being ruined. And mine will be in a matter of time, because I'm being taxed out of business," Gambino said.

After all who wished to speak had done so, Mayor Kelly and other elected officials said it was good to hear so many residents express themselves on the issue of taxes. St. Paul's city council is poised to approve its 2003 budget Wednesday. Ramsey County and the St. Paul School Board will do so next week.

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