Property taxes are an insidious thing. Unless you pay close attention, tax rates and your assessed value (and therefore, tax bill) go up incrementally year after year and you hardly notice until at some point you stumble upon a statement from ten years ago and discover that the increase from then until now is double or triple what inflation was. You can complain to the assessor and sometimes get an adjustment, but most people just don’t pay that much attention.
With the demise of the Green Acres tax program, local farmers and rural landowners won’t have to look twice at their tax statements to count up the damages. Green Acres (see story on the cover of our 2/17/10 edition) used to help farmers deal with pressures on the value of nonproductive rural land, such as marshes and woodlands, due to development or the sale of hunting land. Typically, the program froze their assessed value at an agricultural market value of about $800 per acre. Now this land is going to be assessed as 2b rural vacant land, three times as much. And Winona County’s farms average only 52% tillable acreage.
There is a new program called the Rural Preserve Program, but to enroll in it farmers must commit to a ten-year conservation management plan, approved by the county, which they must pay for. Then, the tax increase would be only double.
If these changes go into effect in the present form, the affect on Southeast Minnesota, and Winona County in particular, will be devastating. Who can imagine, in the first place, that farmers could afford such a huge tax hike, let alone in a struggling economy? Do the St. Paul politicians, when they drive through rural Minnesota, imagine that those farm houses are vacation homes? Or is it that they just never go there?
What will farmers do to survive? There are no good alternatives, but we will surely see an increase in the plowing of marginal, hilly land and more draining and tiling of wetlands, practices which other government programs work to prevent. Such misuse and degradation of the rural landscape will inescapably cause increased erosion and the consequent degradation of water quality and the unique cold water fishery that exists here. Wildlife habitat will be similarly degraded or simply disappear. Minnesotans just passed a sales tax to improve state water quality, wildlife habitat, and hunting and fishing opportunities. How does it make the slightest sense to now institute tax policy which will force farmers to work against all of this.
How heartbreaking it has been over my lifetime to drive through the countryside and see woodlots and windbreaks bulldozed, sloughs and wetlands drained, seemingly every last bit of beauty and mystery in the rural landscape put under the plow. This process has slowed recently, and our little corner of creation, thanks in large part to its hilly and wooded character, is still unique and beautiful, with a pristine network of trout streams, largely unknown to outsiders. All of this is now at immediate risk and under direct attack by the state, in this greedy, sleazy shakedown of farmers for the few miserable dollars involved.
A thousand times these piddling sums will never buy back what will be destroyed, as we have found out over the last few generations. Contact your state representatives, senators, and the governor’s office to insist that the Green Acres rural tax program stays in place for all this “unproductive land.”