Last week, the Beltrami County Board approved a 2011 property tax levy of $16.9 million, which apparently is something unique in Minnesota as the county appears to be the only one of 87 to levy a lower property tax than 2010.
Next year's property tax is 0.43 percent less than this year's levy. While the amount, about $73,000, may not seem like much, the fact that it is decreasing at a time when everyone else is increasing is significant. A number of factors contributed to the lower levy.
Commissioners have tried to hold the line in spending, which is commendable, but some is out of their control. The levy for road and bridge is about $65,000 lower because state road aid to the county will be less to fund projects that require a county match.
Homeowners will also be affected by an expanded property tax base with new construction that allows the tax to be spread over more properties. A big boost is the new Enbridge pipeline, which will add $220,000 in new property taxes in 2011.
It should be noted that the city of Bemidji is also a benefactor of new construction, imposing a 3 percent levy increase for 2011 but with homeowners seeing little impact with new construction expected to absorb that increase.
The county is also implementing a new outcome-based management style which should make county government smaller and more efficient. It will allow county staffing to decline from 350 positions today to 338 in 2011, and down from 369 in 2008.
The County Board is to be commended for coming in with a property tax decrease. But we also ask if that can be sustained.
The 2011 Legislature faces a $6.2 billion budget hole when legislators start meeting next week to hammer out the next two-year state budget. While the county is on sound footing for the first half of 2011, anything goes for the second half. The county has a solid reserve that could absorb any further cuts in state funding in the second half, but the 2012 budget could be a different matter.
Commissioners have been trying to detail one year's budget and scope out the next, in an effort to get a two-year budget picture. Even without knowing what the state will do, commissioners have predicted a 2.7 percent levy increase, or more than $450,000, for the 2012 property tax levy. That could easily go higher, depending on the state.
So while 2011 will be a good year for county property taxpayers, we fear for what lies ahead. The county, as an arm of state government, is mandated to provide a number of services to people, especially the gamut of safety net programs under human services. But when the state money doesn't follow the mandate, higher county property taxes are the only alternative.
But at least we can enjoy 2011.