The Northfield City Council on Tuesday narrowly approved a 11.5% increase in the 2020 preliminary tax levy with proponents saying the added revenue will cover increased expenses, staffing and road construction projects.
Councilors Brad Ness, Suzie Nakasian and David DeLong voted no.
If set as a final levy, the increase is estimated to add $166 in taxes next year on a home that rose in value from $250,000 to $266,000. For a $250,000 home that did not increase in value, taxes are expected to increase $60.
The $10.43 million levy figure will not be allowed to increase before it is set in December but can stay the same or decrease.
The proposed levy increase is to keep services and staffing levels comparable to the previous year and includes new bonded projects (the 2019 street project: Third Street and northwest area, Spring Creek Road and street shop roof.) Other reasons include increased expenses, primarily due to the 2020 election, and employee salary and benefit costs.
The median home value increased 7.4% in Rice County and 5.4% in Dakota County this year.
Councilor Jessica Peterson White said she supported the increase after years of artificially low levy increases.
“As I look at the history of what has happened here with the property tax levy, particularly the drops in the city’s overall tax rate since 2012 or so, what I see are short-term political gains with long-term costs for constituents,” she said.
She said she doesn’t want artificially low increases if it means the city will be permanently understaffed. Although she acknowledged the preliminary increase is substantial, she added she has “overwhelmingly” heard Northfield taxpayers say they have not been receiving needed services.
DeLong replied derisively that the proposed increase was “totally unrealistic.” He suggested the preliminary tax levy should be set at 7.5 percent to possibly be lowered to 5 percent in the future. He said the increase would negatively impact city residents who are not seeing cost-of-living increases.
“There’s a lot of wants, but then there’s needs,” he said of his view on how the city should spend money.
“This really pains me,” DeLong added. “And it isn’t for political gain.”
Councilor Erica Zweifel cited needed street and infrastructure investment from Northfield residential areas developed from the mid-90s to mid-2000s and the need to catch up for cutbacks the city enacted after the Great Recession as reasons for the increase.
“I have heard a lot about costs, but we also have to provide services,” she said.
Ness said although all budget proposals were worthy, he wanted to see the preliminary mark be at 9.5%.
“I can’t support 11.5” he said. “If we get to another vote, we’ll see where it goes.”
Nakasian said although the city has a pattern of setting high preliminary figures and then using restraint when setting the final levy, “this is a little bit too high of a ceiling for me.”
Although Councilor Clarice Grabau voted for the preliminary figure, she said she was thinking about the city’s lowest-income families.
“I accept this as a preliminary because it gives us flexibility to discuss options, but I very much hope that we do not end up here,” she said.
The council on Tuesday also approved the preliminary budget with $14.2 million in revenue and $14.3 million in expenses. The city plans to use reserves to pay for the difference.