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Literature in a Hurry: Is Truth in Taxation set up to fail?

Kim Ukura

MORRIS - This week I got the chance to cover my first two Truth in Taxation (TnT) meetings, one for Stevens County and one for the City of Morris.

I'm a not-so-secret government nerd (a good quality for someone who spends a lot of time covering local meetings), so I was actually looking forward to seeing what the TnT hearings would offer.

According to the Minnesota House of Representatives research department, Truth in Taxation is a process enacted in 1988 that, if it works as designed, is supposed to "enhance public participation in Minnesota's property tax system, educate the public on how property taxes are determined, encourage the public to understand the local government's budget process and encourage the public to become involved in helping local officials set spending priorities."

Those are lofty and, I believe, worthwhile goals. However, the way TnT processes seem to play out - and the way I've seen them happening here in Morris - doesn't seem to do that. The results I've seen have been discouraging.

On Monday night, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners passed a final budget at about 5:45 p.m., adjourned their regular meeting while they took a break, and invited citizens to comment on the final budget at the TnT hearing at 7 p.m.

If a Truth in Taxation hearing is designed to invite public input, scheduling it after the budget has already been passed seems like a fruitless endeavor and, in fact, one that will simply discourage or frustrate citizens who want to be involved in the process.

When I talked to County Coordinator Brian Giese later in the week, he said passing the budget before the TnT hearing was a matter of timing, but not typically the county's practice. The county faces some deadlines about when the levy and budget need to be passed. If the board had wanted to make changes, they could have called a special meeting to address issues, Giese said.

On the other hand, I was excited to see high attendance - around 20 citizens - at the Stevens County meeting. Giese told me that he was surprised by the attendance, and thought it was a combination of questions about changes to their TnT statements related to tax changes, awareness about the budget process thanks to a community forum organized at the beginning of November and follow-up to prior jail and courthouse discussions.

But high attendance at a meeting doesn't necessarily mean much worthwhile discussion will come out. It seemed to me that many of the citizens at the county TnT meeting were there to simply complain about taxes or grind an axe about the courthouse project rather than offer any constructive suggestions.

The City of Morris TnT hearing was more like what I expected - low attendance and few questions. News stories from across the state repeatedly note that very few people usually show up at TnT hearings, which is also too bad.

The TnT process isn't working, particularly as a way for the public to be involved with the budget process. Regular low attendance means elected officials don't seem to really expect useful feedback from citizens and have already made most decisions before the meeting begins. If officials don't expect useful feedback, there's no incentive to leave discussions open and welcome citizen input when citizens do decide to participate.

When citizens don't expect that their voices are being heard, there's no incentive to come to a meeting and offer constructive comments. A TnT hearing just becomes a widely-publicized invitation to complain. That's not helpful either.

If a public meeting is the answer for encouraging citizen input - and I'm not entirely sure it's the only one - organizing one earlier in the budget process might help address some of these problems. Or, local governments should make sure their regular meetings are held at a time and place that a working person can attend and offer feedback. There are certainly many more creative solutions to this problem that I don't have the space to consider here.

Open government that is responsive to citizen feedback is vital, but the current Truth in Taxation process simply isn't working effectively.