Minneapolis mayoral candidates have been largely quiet about property taxes that have gone up sharply over the past decade.
Property taxes have soared during Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 12 years in office, even leading to an all-out taxpayer revolt over double-digit jumps in their bills.
Some of the most prominent candidates running to replace Rybak, however, have been largely subdued about the hefty increases. Some of them have been in office during those tax hikes and would risk criticizing their own decisions, or those of a largely popular mayor.
The mayoral candidates “don’t see property taxes as a big problem … they aren’t going to call [Rybak] out on the property tax increases he did because they don’t want to have to be accountable for saying that when they raise property taxes,” said Kris Broberg, a property manager who protested the tax hikes several years ago.
Instead, candidates have focused on other issues, including closing the achievement gap, expanding public transportation, and growing jobs and population.
With the exception of a flat levy in 2012, every Rybak budget to this point has raised property taxes, and the city collects nearly double the amount of property taxes that it did when the mayor took office.
The potential impact of property taxes on the race was somewhat blunted when Rybak in August proposed a 1 percent decrease in the amount of property taxes collected to support the budget. Spurred partly by an increase in state aid, it was the first reduction since at least the mid-1990s.
Some candidates themselves have seen substantial increases in their property taxes. Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew has the highest taxes of any of the leading candidates, at $12,529 for his home near Lake Harriet.
“They’ve come down — they were higher,” said Andrew, whose most recent campaign brochures focus on greening the city and boosting education.
Jobs, education and economic development have captured more attention this election, he said, adding that doesn’t mean the property tax issue is unimportant. “Some of the property tax increase was inevitable, and so I think people are looking forward,” he said.
During Andrew’s own time on the County Board in the 1980s and ’90s, county taxes saw double-digit increases for at least several years. But he says that now, property taxes must be the revenue of last resort, not first. Andrew and other candidates have talked about the need to find more private dollars to stretch government funding.
Minneapolis saw an outcry several years ago when taxes soared. Residents protested at City Hall and lambasted the mayor and council members for what they viewed as poor fiscal management. Some had tears in their eyes as they said they could no longer afford to pay their taxes.
Carol Becker, a member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, said that changes in the way business and rental properties were taxed pushed the burden more on homeowners, who went from paying 35 percent of the property taxes in 1998 to 55 percent today. The recession further shifted the weight onto that group.
“It would be simple [for a mayoral candidate] to say, ‘I’m going to reduce taxes,’ but to actually do that would be really hard because there’s no fat left,” Becker said.
The Rybak administration has said that cuts in state aid, large pension obligations and the need to pay down outstanding debt drove the tax increases. This year, the city received a 20 percent increase in state aid and set aside $7 million in unspent funds from 2012 to help ease the tax burden. Minneapolis also has trimmed its payroll for years.
Becker said that projects like the proposed $200 million Nicollet-Central streetcar line — championed this year by mayoral candidates Don Samuels and Betsy Hodges, both council members — don’t help because they would take away money that could be going to reduce property taxes.
Candidates have put more emphasis on expanding the tax base by adding more residents and development to the city. They are talking about luring more people in by easing business regulations, building dense housing along transit corridors, and closing the achievement gap between white and minority children.
But people already leave Minneapolis or stay in the suburbs because of the property taxes, according to Broberg. He described that as a conflict with the goal of increasing the population.