At Minneapolis City Hall last night, the owner of “the last house in Minneapolis” on York Avenue South, right at the border with Edina, stood at a podium facing Mayor R.T. Rybak and members of the city council to announce his plan for dealing with proposed double-digit property tax hikes.
“I want to introduce myself,” said Michael Matthews, whose proposed property tax increase is 13.1 percent. “Hi and bye. I’m moving to Edina — across the street to a rambler.” City Council chambers, packed since before the gavel sounded on the public hearing to discuss the tax increases, pulsed with laughter and applause.
For two hours one homeowner after another—from the disgusted to despondent — stepped to the podium to ask the city to reduce the increases; to issue a moratorium on new projects; and as one senior in a Teamsters cap put it, to “Stop it! Please! Stop it!”
The first applause of the night came for a 43-year resident of Minneapolis who promised to seek a way for taxpayers to block the action and, addressing the mayor, insisted that after years of increases with little respite, “We have no more money to give you.”
Homeowners described opening their proposed property tax statements, assuming it was a printing error, and going door-to-door to their neighbors only to find similar increases—averaging between 10 and 20 percent, according to the city — and further astonishment and dismay.
Few speakers failed to mention the timing of the notice — most people received it just 24 hours before the hearing. Some tried to organize neighbors who couldn’t make the trek to City Hall on such short notice and held those neighbors’ statements in the air with their own.
Sarah Tressel, a homeowner in the Lynnhurst neighborhood near Lake Harriet, was applauded after her emotional demand for another hearing to allow more time for residents to make arrangements and be there.
In fact, the notices were mailed late only in relation to the hearing. By law the statements, also called Truth in Taxation statements, must be printed and mailed after Nov. 10 but before Nov. 25.
Council President Barbara Johnson explained that the notices are mailed out by Hennepin County and that the city has no control over it. Deflecting Tressel’s demand for an additional hearing, Johnson told her of the next and final hearing on the matter, scheduled for Dec. 13. City Council will also vote on the 2011 budget and the proposed tax increases at that meeting.
Tressel wasn’t satisfied — and judging by the mumbling all around her, many others shared her concern that council members will have made up their minds by then.
The city may be working within the rules by sticking to their hearing schedule, she said, but “that is wrong — even if the rules allow you to be wrong.”
The most somber speaker of the night was a woman who bought her home three years ago and was laid off a month ago. “I’ve never been out of a job and I’ve always paid my taxes,” she said, her voice soft and trembling. This money she’d be paying in property tax increases, she explained, was money that would have to come out of her budget for necessities like food. “Rethink this so people like myself will not end up homeless.”
Two rental property owners spoke. One of them, Mark Johnson, reminded the council that people in his position will only pass the increases on to renters who are often struggling already and may be forced to find other housing.
People on fixed incomes—including retirees, were often invoked. “I’m lucky enough that I can afford to pay this,” said recent-retiree Robert Jansen, 64, of the Northrop neighborhood near Lake Nokomis, “But if you want retired people to stay in Minneapolis…”
Johnson and Rybak took turns at the end of the hearing explaining the city’s pension fund crisis, attempts to shrink city government (there are 1,000 fewer city employees today in the City of Minneapolis than there were in 2003), and the toll of state cuts in local government aid.
It’s nothing folks hadn’t heard before. And at least for the people who took to the podium, it wasn’t good enough. “Excuses, excuses, excuses,” one woman whispered. “Stop pointing fingers,” another demanded. In an era of widespread economic hardship and long-term unemployment, it’s no surprise if people are struggling to take a city-first view on the increases. “I can’t afford this” was the mantra of the hearing.
“Don’t tax me like I have the money to pay it,” said Robert Hinck, a homeowner in the Lowry Hill neighborhood. “We are literally being taxed out of our homes.” He closed with a poignant line that referenced the defector on York Avenue and had only the audience laughing: “Quality of life in this city includes a city with residents.”