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Sides spar over Cook County tax levy

Dec 10, 2017 07:27AM ● Published by Editor

By Brady Slater of The Duluth News Tribune on December 9, 2017

Known for its getaway appeal, Cook County is home to a long stretch of the North Shore of Lake Superior and encompasses the northeasternmost tip of Minnesota.
In 2016, it cost $7 million to operate Cook County — making it among a group of rural counties with some of the lower tax levies in the state. By comparison, St. Louis County is proposing to operate on $132 million in 2018.
On Tuesday, Cook County commissioners will vote on setting next year's tax levy at almost $9.5 million — a number that may be just right, to hear the county administrator tell it.
But in the face of the largest percentage tax increase in the state, up nearly 20 percent from 2017, a former one-term county commissioner turned newspaper columnist is leading a tax revolt in Cook County.

Garry Gamble

Garry Gamble

"I was there for four years (on the board) — there was no fiscal discipline, no willingness to say no," said Garry Gamble, who lost his county board reelection bid in 2016 for the District 2 seat representing the area around Grand Marais.

Gamble started a group this year, Citizens for an Affordable Cook County, which he described as having a handful of core members among a broader group of supporters. A Citizens-funded survey saw 840 mailers returned from the more than 2,100 sent to what Gamble called a random sampling of property holders. To Gamble's satisfaction, almost all of the surveys came back critical of the county's proposed levy and spending. To further fuel his revolt, Gamble also writes a weekly column in the Cook County News Herald, in which he regularly criticizes the board and its seemingly by-the-book truth-in-taxation process.

"The Koochiching County commissioners are my heroes," said Gamble, using an example of a neighbor two counties over. "They were us 25 years ago. They had 7 percent increases three years in a row, and their constituents were up in arms. ... Now, they run their county like a business."

While Gamble calls on his supporters using the words, "stand up!" Cook County Administrator Jeff Cadwell is appealing to people to stay calm.

"The only effect of the survey is on increasing unnecessary distress in local government," Cadwell said. "It's not going to have an effect on the commissioners. They understand their responsibility and need to fund programs."

Cadwell blamed previous county boards, which included Gamble from 2013-16, for the county's current predicament.

Past boards deferred payments on $550,000 worth of two new road graders to 2018-19, Cadwell said. The boards also employed other line-item cost savings such as stopping the treatment of roads with calcium chloride — a preventative maintenance practice the county is scheduled to bring back.

Jeff Cadwell

Jeff Cadwell

Additionally, Cadwell said the current levy proposal indicates an attempt to stop raiding the county's fund balance — think: rainy day money set aside in an amount equivalent to about three-fourths of one year's levy. Those savings are a crucial credit-rating marker, Cadwell explained, and commissioners asked him to deliver a budget that went away from using fund-balance spending.

All told, Cadwell said the county has massaged an originally proposed 19.9 percent tax levy increase down to 17.5 percent. The increase amounts to $5 per month on every $100,000 worth of property, he said. After the hit in 2018, Cadwell said Cook County will own a balanced budget and normalize around the 4 percent neighborhood for future tax levy increases beginning in 2019.

Gamble doesn't buy it and calls Cadwell's forecast "disingenuous."

"Smooth sailing from then on means you know exactly what happens in the future," Gamble said. "Our experience tells us the exact opposite."

Said Caldwell in defense of the proposed levy, "Our budget and the demands the state puts on counties to provide things like human services, roads and public transportation is not sustainable when you own a $100,000 property and pay $300 in taxes."
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