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Citizens to county: Cut taxes, spending

CUTLINE: Farmer Eugene Smallidge of Cottage Grove was among Washington County residents who questioned their property taxes and the county's 2010 budget at a public hearing Tuesday. Smallidge was holding a soil book that he said used to be used to help determine the value of his agricultural property. He told commissioners that the property taxes on some of his agricultural property are going up more than three-fold. Staff photo by Scott Wente

Residents gave Washington County commissioners more than an earful at a budget hearing, telling them that government should cut spending and not increase property taxes in an economic recession.

Paul Randall said the value of his modest three-bedroom home is decreasing but his property taxes are increasing. Randall, of Stillwater, wondered whether he will face even bigger property tax increases when the economy rebounds. He said he pays his taxes, but relies on an unpredictable income stream.

"I am upset. This tax statement means a lot," he said Tuesday night. "It means that come a good economy, the county of Washington's going to force me out of my house."

The public budget meeting came before commissioners are to vote Dec. 15 on the county's 2010 budget and property tax levy. The proposal includes a 1.9 percent increase in the property tax levy and an operating budget of $144.3 million, down 1.4 percent from current spending.

Some citizens complained about the property assessment process, saying that because they farm and are busy planting crops in the spring, they did not have time to question their land assessments before a summer deadline.

Those assessments surprised Eugene Smallidge. The Cottage Grove farmer said his agricultural land saw property tax increases of between 214 percent and 324 percent.

County officials say a median-priced home of $268,000 may see a decrease in the county portion of their tax statement next year. Smallidge said property taxes on his home are going up 7.4 percent.

"I can live with an increase of 7.4, but the 200 to 324-percent increases - we feel that," Smallidge said.

About a dozen people commented on the budget and tax levy plan, but Stillwater resident Shannon Becking wondered whether commissioners were listening.

"Do you hear what people are saying and do you care?" she asked.

Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury said board members heard the citizens' concerns and will "take them under consideration."

Commissioner Dennis Hegberg said the board takes public comments seriously, but during a bad economy, the county comes under added pressure. The county is mandated to offer certain programs, particularly in social services. For instance, a record number of people are seeking food assistance, administered by the county.

"We are working to bring the county government as close to delivering core and essential services as possible, without ripping the safety net that has to be the county," Weik said.