No special session puts onus on cities and counties to contain costs

Local governments across Minnesota still hold out hope that state lawmakers will reverse course and call a special session to approve the tax deal the House DFL majority failed to get across the finish line before the end of the regular legislative session in May. Unable to count on funds from the tax bill, cities and counties have to assume the worst when it comes to setting their budgets for next year.

So the pressure’s on local governments like the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, who’ve been feeling the heat at recent meetings covered by the Duluth News Tribune.

St. Louis County commissioners heralded budget cuts during meetings last month while slamming the state Legislature for failing to pass millions of dollars in tax cuts.

“I’m not going to let them off the hook,” Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, said June 28 in Brookston. “They need to come back and finish their work, or they shouldn’t get paid.”

The St. Louis County Board enters July poised for months of budgeting work set to be approved in the fall.

Nelson, chair of the board’s budgeting committee, said “reality” for the county is that it will be left $7 million-$9 million short.

The failure of house legislative leaders to pass a tax measure has left commissioners little choice but to more closely scrutinize county staffing and spending. In St. Louis County at least, there appears to be an understanding that property taxpayers can only take so much.

With property valuations and, subsequently, property taxes rising across the state, Nelson said the fix isn’t to continually raise property taxes. Nelson said he won’t vote for a levy that produces more than a 2% increase, and that it’s on the state, flush with a surplus, to fix things.

“We cannot pass another huge increase onto property owners who are paying $5 and $6 per gallon for gas and watching groceries go up every other day,” Nelson said. “We’re all feeling it.”

During a tense interaction last week, Nelson recommended a hiring freeze, and that every department head “sharpen their pencils and figure out how we are going to keep this in line for our taxpayers.”

Still, commissioners continue to work on a back-up plan on the hope and prayer that state lawmakers will somehow agree to get back together and pave the way for them in St. Paul.

Boyle held out hope for a legislative special session in August, following the primary election. Until then, the board will prepare its 2023 budget along two tracks — one featuring the added state money and one without.

“It makes for double the work, but we’re in uncharted waters,” Boyle said.

Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing central Duluth, concurred.

““For counties,” Jewell said. “It’s enormously impactful to not pass a tax bill.”