Monday, December 25, 2006

Strib on school levies

School levies have failed in numerous school districts across the state. We campaigned hard on the issue in the past election and now will work hard to hold our elected leaders accountable. Senator Dille has stated he supports reforms to school funding for more than a decade now with results being few and far between.

Now...our public schools are in trouble. Here is the story from the Strib!

Public school officials need to look no further than retired carpenter David Ervin to understand why many Minnesota property owners recently rejected pleas for more money.

Burnsville schools got a no for an answer last month when they asked voters to approve a major property tax increase. Ervin, 66, said he has supported school referendums in the past, but this time, "I voted no. It would have increased my taxes $200 to $300 a year. The homeowners are getting hit pretty hard because of the lack of state funding. There's got to be some kind of relief."
Relief is expected to be at the top of the agenda when the new DFL-controlled Legislature convenes Jan. 3. But lawmakers will have to wrestle with the risk that one person's property tax break could create a burden for other taxpayers, or for the state budget.

If Ervin represents one side of that equation, Beth Purcelli embodies the other. Purcelli, 30, lives with her daughter in a $900-a-month Burnsville apartment. She sells two-way radios and is studying for a bachelor's degree.

Property taxes affect Purcelli's rent only indirectly, so she's not a fan of curbing them if it means higher taxes on her income, cigarettes or other purchases. "I already survive paycheck to paycheck," she said.

Economic insecurity

The tension over differing taxes' impact on different taxpayers intensified when recent changes in Minnesota laws shifted more of the burden from the state to local governments. A decline in state aid to local governments contributed to residential property taxes rising an average of 58 percent from 2002 through 2006. Higher property values and local government spending also fed the increase.

Property taxes will rise an average of 8.2 percent statewide in 2007, the state Revenue Department estimates.

Taxes on a median-valued home in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District rose about 35 percent from 2002 to what is proposed for 2007.

It could have been higher still. This year the district asked voters to boost levies nearly $6 million a year over the next decade to erase an operating deficit and avoid increasing class sizes.
The district said that would add about $228 a year to the tax bill on a home valued at $250,000. Officials held community meetings to explain the proposal and got an inkling that it would be a tough sell in a district where many homeowners work for economically strapped Northwest Airlines.

"I think the overriding issue was economic insecurity and therefore a concern about increasing property taxes," said Superintendent Benjamin Kanninen.

He recalled a meeting where one resident said: "I support schools and I understand what you're saying, but how can you ask me to raise my taxes? I just lost my job."

Record rate of 'no' votes

Resistance also came from senior citizens living on fixed or nearly fixed incomes.

One of those was Ervin. A widower with grown children, he said he voted to raise property taxes for Minneapolis schools years ago when his family lived there. But he said passage of the Burnsville referendum would raise his taxes at a time when "there's way too much money spent on administration" in the school system.

He also says local governments were in a bind because of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's refusal to increase statewide taxes. "They had to raise property taxes," Ervin said.

The district stressed that it was among a minority of school systems spending more than 70 percent of their budgets on teaching rather than administration, a benchmark set by Pawlenty.

But the referendum failed, 56 to 44 percent.

It was one of 40 school district operating referendums that failed in November. Statewide, 57 percent of the school referendums were shot down -- the worst percentage since tracking began in 1980, said Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. He saw the defeats as a measure of long-standing public frustration with property taxes.
"With schools ... you get to vote on it," he said. "It's one time you can say, 'My property taxes are too high.' "

For the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district, the defeat probably means laying off 50 to 75 employees -- including perhaps 5 percent of its teachers.

Which taxes to relieve?

As a renter and her household's sole wage earner, Purcelli has a different perspective on taxes. She is skeptical about how long the state's projected budget surplus will last. And she doesn't want income taxes or other levies -- she's a smoker still upset about the 75-cent-a-pack fee enacted in 2005 -- boosted to pay for property tax relief. Still, she hopes to own a home one day.

"It's hard enough to survive in this world on one income, let alone if they start taking more of that income from me," she said.

DFL leaders and Pawlenty have promised some form of property tax relief next year. Both the Republican governor and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the new chairman of the Taxes Committee, oppose state tax increases to pay for it. But funds steered to relief for homeowners could just as easily go to income or sales tax breaks that might more directly reach taxpayers such as Purcelli.

The governor wants to hold annual property tax increases to under 10 percent, said spokesman Alex Carey. DFLers will probably push for increasing state aid to local governments as a way to control or reduce property taxes.

"The cities that have lost local government aid over the last four years would like to have some of that back to help pull down property taxes," Bakk said. Another way to hold down property taxes would be more state aid to schools, he said.

The amount of tax relief will depend on the state economic forecast to be released in February, Bakk added.

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