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Publisher's Post: Smothering the golden goose


(12/12/2018)

by Winona Post Publisher Patrick P. Marek

I have a liberal friend who recently posted on his Facebook page how happy he was to pay taxes. He made the case that by paying taxes he was funding museums, safe roads, police and fire departments, and basically everything that is important and good in his life. It’s too bad he doesn’t live in Winona, because our skyrocketing property taxes would be an everlasting gift of joy. Luckily, however, he is a Minnesota resident, so he can proudly boast that he lives in the fourth-highest taxed state in the United States. Yippee! Let the merriment be unrestrained.

I have a lot of friends who are liberals, and most of them are good people who sincerely want to make a positive difference in this world. Unfortunately, you can make an argument that many liberal initiatives have unintended negative consequences. Sometimes they end up hurting the very people they were designed to help.

Incoming Governor Tim Walz and Winona’s City Manager Steve Sarvi have a lot in common. They are both proudly liberal and unabashedly green. They also both have a spending disorder when it comes to our money. Walz comes into office with a $1.5-billion surplus. Despite that windfall, he says that he is going to stick to his campaign promise of increasing our gasoline tax by 25 cents a gallon. Where is the money going to be used? It is supposed to be designated to fix our roads and bridges. Here’s the problem with that answer. Minnesota is already making a huge investment into improving our transportation infrastructure, with the Minnesota Department of Transportation spending more than $1 billion on roads and bridges in 2018 alone. All you have to do is take a road trip anywhere in the state … there is road construction everywhere, and we still managed to produce a healthy surplus.

Currently Minnesota gets a tax of 28.5 cents a gallon on regular and biodiesel gasoline, and a 20.25 cent per gallon tax on E-85 fuel. We’ll save the “Great Ethanol Scam” argument for another day. Here is the best reason not to increase the gas tax: it hurts the poor, especially in rural areas of the state. Many Minnesotans live in or on the edge of poverty, and don’t have accessibility to affordable public transportation. For them, any kind of a gas tax could keep them from being able to travel to the jobs they desperately need to feed, clothe and house their families. So, if Walz comes into office with a huge surplus and knowing Minnesota is already heavily investing in our roads and bridges, why would he stick to a gas tax promise that is sure to have a negative impact on our poorest citizens? A cynical person might speculate that he is has a liberal environmental anti-fossil fuel agenda, and doesn’t care who it hurts.

As for Winona, since 2014 (which will forever now be known as the “good old days”), when Winona taxes actually decreased by 1.4 percent, taxes have increased an astonishing 41 percent. That number includes a projected 5.38 percent increase for 2019, but doesn’t account for the “preview of coming attractions” property tax investment for the proposed $23-million parks plan.

Including next year’s proposed tax hike, Winona’s property tax will have increased 24.61 percent since city manager Steve Sarvi took the helm in 2016. To be fair, Sarvi moved away from Rushford, and has a residence in Winona, so he participates in our taxation pain. However, he earns a healthy salary, and his family budget can probably easily absorb the tax burden. For Winona’s retired senior citizens, it’s not so easy. Social Security benefits have only increased by a total of 4.8 percent since 2013, with an estimated 2.8 percent increase for next year. On top of that, Minnesota is one of only 13 states that taxes Social Security benefits. Uncontrolled taxation from the city, county, and school district, and an increasingly volatile stock market have Winona seniors worried about where the money to pay for everything is going to come from.

What are we getting for our increased property taxes? It’s a mixed bag. Winona’s Levee Park renovation was tax dollars well spent, providing an attractive entrance to what once was the city’s most underused asset, access to the Mississippi River. Winona’s Levee Park is now a crown jewel for Winona, attracting tourism, special events, and becoming “Winona’s patio” for family get-togethers and activities.

Unfortunately, the rest of the news isn’t a so positive. Sarvi added two new positions to Winona’s payroll. Lee Gundersheimer is our arts and cultural coordinator, but could be more accurately called “Winona’s Minister of Fun and Games.” Lee is an incredibly talented person with amazing skills and a lot of contacts in the arts community, but his job could probably be handled by private individuals and organizations using Winona’s facilities for events and activities. The Winona Chamber of Commerce’s Main Street program already does an admirable job of coordinating and staffing downtown events, including the annual Big Muddy Brew and Cue at Levee Park. Winona’s biggest arts attractions — the Great River Shakespeare Festival, Beethoven Festival, Midwest Music Festival, Frozen River Film Festival, Hurry Back Productions, Theatre du Mississippi, Bud King Ice Arena, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum — thrive quite well with little or no city tax dollars, and the Lake Winona Bike Path was recently resurfaced with private funds.

John Howard is our new environmental natural resource sustainability coordinator. If you think that title sounds a little ominous, you are in good company. Howard’s original responsibility, monitoring Winona’s stormwater, was once the part-time duty of an existing city employee. In his newly created role as “Environment Czar,” Howard could be a serious stumbling block and deterrent to future downtown development. The city committee he oversees, the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee, recently tried (unsuccessfully) to increase its power base by applying to the City Council for commission status. Committee members are now scrutinizing Winona’s Unified Development Code line by line for areas of possible responsibility and enforcement. What could possibly go wrong?

The current financial climate is filled with opportunity and prosperity. However, there are possible storm clouds on the horizon. It’s time to take a step back, control government spending, and make sure political agendas don’t harm our most vulnerable citizens.

Winona’s tax hikes

2014
-1.40% ($6.514M)
2015
6.63% ($6.946M)
2016
6.08% ($7.368M)
2017
10.53% ($8.144M)
2018
6.99% ($8.714M)
2019
Prelim. 5.38% ($9.182M)

Social Security increases

2014
1.7%
2015
0.0%
2016
0.3%
2017
2.0%
2018
2.8%
2019
Projected 2.8%

 

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