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Tax hearing mix-up draws three people

Call it a tax hearing that wasn't.

Alexandria's "Truth in Taxation" hearing to discuss the 2011 budget and proposed levy was supposed to take place this past Monday night. That's when the city scheduled the hearing after approving the preliminary budget in September.

But in the official tax hearing notices that Douglas County mailed out last week, Alexandria's hearing was listed as Monday, December 13.

The city council, which had been meeting Monday for an informal work session anyway, decided to go ahead with an "unofficial" townhall-style meeting to get input and answer questions about the budget.

Only three residents attended - Virgil Batesole, the winner of the Ward 1 council race; Don Kleine, who finished third in the same race; and Alexandria businessman Ed Rooney.

Alexandria is proposing a levy increase of 8.46 percent. That doesn't mean everyone's taxes will go up that much.

Taxes depend on other factors, including assessed property values and what other taxing entities - the county and school district - will levy.

Alexandria's proposed 2011 levy is $5.29 million, compared to this year's levy of $4.88 million.

The 2011 budget reflects an increase of 7 percent in expenditures and a 5.5 percent increase in revenues, according to City Administrator Jim Taddei.

Batesole expressed disappointment and outrage over the proposed levy increase.

"People around here are hurting," Batesole told the council.

He added that when he was out campaigning, he knocked on about 800 doors and between 50 and 75 percent of the residents invited him in or wanted to talk to him about city spending. He said the two biggest issues they raised were the city's proposed 2 percent increase for city employees and a 2 percent raise for city council members.

Those on fixed incomes can't handle any more tax increases, Batesole said. They haven't had a Social Security increase in two years, he said. They're letting mortgage payments slide and getting into deeper debt by using credit cards to pay bills.

With people having less and less money to spend, local businesses are feeling the impact as well, Batesole said. "Something has got to be done," he said.

College students are in a similar situation, he added. They're paying $330 in monthly rent, another $200 for food and still have to pay for gas, laundry and student loans, Batesole said.

Local manufacturers are also feeling the pain of the sluggish economy, Batesole said. Some have had to make layoffs and force workers to take a week off without pay.

The last thing people need is higher taxes, Batesole said.

"The picture is not good," he said. "When times are tough, you don't spit in people's faces."

Batesole suggested that the council go back to their department heads and tell them they need to reduce their budgets. "When I get up in that seat, I'm going to dig in and find out where to cut," Batesole said.

Mayor Dan Ness thanked Batesole for his comments and agreed that the economic times are tough right now.

Kleine told the council he appreciated their work in putting together a budget and then asked a few questions.

He wanted to know if the city was confident it would receive its budgeted amount of local government aid (LGA) from the state Legislature. Ness said there are no guarantees about what the Legislature will do.

Kleine suggested the city take a look at its capital improvement budget to see if some purchases could be delayed, such as a one-ton truck for the park department.

"Are some of these expenses necessary?" Kleine asked, questioning the $250,000 the city was budgeting for capital improvement projects next year. "Maybe, we can make things work for a couple more years."

He added that a street project to resurface Rosewood Lane, a $346,615 expense in the budget, could be delayed.

Kleine said the city should also explore alternative types of financing, such as municipal leasing, instead of borrowing money.

Ness thanked Kleine for his comments and noted that the city has delayed capital improvement projects in the past as a "relief valve" for significant LGA cuts. He said that the city has lost more than $1 million in LGA cuts and unallotment since 2003 and has put moratoriums on buying equipment that's needed.

If the city gets hit with another LGA cut, the capital improvement fund will likely be reduced again, Ness said.

The mayor added that the city doesn't have much choice about some capital improvement purchases. Half of the fees it collects from townships for fire protection, for example, must be placed in a fund for fire equipment.

Batesole questioned the city's assessed values of property. He said that his property is over-assessed and warned that some property owners in Sauk Centre are taking the city to court for inflated values.

Ness asked City Assessor Reed Heidelberger if Alexandria's assessment were within the requirements set by the state, which are based on real estate sales. Heidelberger said the assessments are within 97 percent of the required amounts.

Batesole wasn't convinced. "You'll hear more from me on this," he said.

The council didn't take any action Monday night. It will discuss the budget and levy again at its December 13 meeting.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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