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Taxes — and treaties — on the table: Bemidjians bend legislators’ ears at town hall meeting

BEMIDJI — A large crowd turned out Monday for a talk with local legislators that ranged from changes to local tax code to international arms treaties.

Minnesota Reps. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji and Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, along with State Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee all came to listen and respond to attendees’ questions and concerns at Bemidji City Hall.

Bemidji City Council member Reed Olson talked about a tax initiative the city is pursuing that Persell, Erickson, Skoe and their colleagues in the Legislature would need to approve. It would allow the future Bemidji Area Fire Department to charge a fire service fee based on building value to all the properties it serves, including nonprofits that by law don’t pay property tax.

Skoe said charging based on the value of the building was too close to charging a property tax outright. “I’ve researched that and I don’t think that will be a viable option,” he said.   

He added tax increases generally would be a tough sell in the upcoming legislative session since the state raised taxes overall last year.

“We balanced our budget… but I don’t think people want to do that again,” he said.

After the meeting, Skoe said his position on the fire service fee was neutral.    

“It’s not a for or an against,” he said. “It has to make sense, and has to comply with the Constitution… we can’t be taxing… what would essentially be a property tax onto the nonprofits.”

Skoe also said the city should be talking with Bemidji State University, which he said wouldn’t be able to deal with a “huge” fire service fee. “The advocates for this fire service need to solve these problems before it’s going to move forward,” he said.  

Bemidji Area Schools superintendent Jim Hess asked legislators about school funding formulas. He asked that the Bemidji district’s transportation costs be paid per distance driven rather than by the number of students because the Bemidji district has a disproportionate amount of distance to cover.

Skoe was doubtful that could happen this year, although he did predict legislation that would help districts with the free and reduced-cost school lunch program.

“We don’t have the votes,” Skoe said of changing the system back.    

Although the three legislators are part of Minnesota state government, several people asked questions about federal issues.

One man stormed out after getting into an argument with Persell over a United Nations arms treaty that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed in September. He claimed that with the treaty Democrats were “trying to take away our guns (and) give away our sovereignty as well.”

Persell responded by pointing out that although he himself is a gun owner — “I probably own more weapons than most people in this room” — the law places limits on the Second Amendment.

“Can you have a nuclear weapon?,” Persell asked the audience member rhetorically. When the man said no, Persell replied, “There you go, you’ve got a rule on you, don’t you?”

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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