County Board Warned Raising Property Taxes For Citizens Group is Illegal

Residents of Freeborn County in southern Minnesota could be facing more than a 5 percent hike in their property tax levy next year. But a portion of the tax hike–roughly $200,000–under consideration by county commissioners may be illegal, according to the Albert Lea Tribune.

The approximately 1% of the 5.6% preliminary tax levy approved by the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners and set aside for a potential donation to the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition may not have statute behind it, the Freeborn County attorney told the board Tuesday.

“The county cannot, by law, just give taxpayer dollars to anyone or any cause,” Freeborn County Attorney David Walker said.

The funding controversy came up in the context of the Mayo Clinic Health System’s consolidation of services in the Albert Lea and Austin area. The citizens group hopes to attract more providers to compete directly with Mayo. But public funds can be raised and spent only under tight restrictions, regardless of the cause.

Generally speaking, under the Minnesota constitution, a county must have legal authorization for its public expenditures, Walker said. This is one of two criteria. The second is that anything a public expenditure is paying for has to serve a public purpose.

But Walker said he does not see the first criterion being met by giving $200,000 to the coalition.

“I can’t find a statutory authorization for the board to give any money to the healthcare coalition,” he said.

The Freeborn County Board apparently has not taken further action yet. But as a result of County Attorney Walker’s action, it seems likely taxpayers’ pocketbooks will be a little healthier if and when commissioners decline funding for the healthcare coalition.