After years of modest tax hikes, the Prior Lake City Council approved a 10 percent property tax increase Monday, following two hours of debate that included demands that the city do more to limit spending.
City officials warned that library hours and other services could be cut if the full increase did not go through.
“I’m just in shock, basically,” said Dawn Glatzel-Beck, president of Friends of the Library. She spoke at a public hearing before the vote.
Prior Lake is one of about 20 metro-area cities that have adopted or are still considering double-digit increases for 2015.
By dipping into reserve funds, Prior Lake managed to avoid any significant tax hikes the past five years. More than half of the levy increase will go toward replenishing reserves.
The council’s 3-2 vote in favor of the levy increase was part of a larger vote to approve the 2015 budget, which this year came in at $31.6 million, up about $1.5 million from the 2014 amended budget. About 40 percent of the total budget will go toward the city’s general fund.
Higher home values means taxes already were set to rise for most Prior Lake residents even before the levy increase. Median home values in the south metro city rose an estimated 9 percent in 2014, to $242,100.
In a presentation before Monday’s public hearing, city administrator Frank Boyles described recent population growth — 1 percent per year, on average — and emphasized a need for investment in services and infrastructure. Without that investment, he said, services would continue to erode.
“Those things don’t maintain themselves,” he said. “They require the city to maintain them.”
Seven on the block
At the council’s direction, city staffers put together a breakdown of seven possible cuts this fall, ranging from city communications to the police force. Together, they would have saved about $800,000.
None of the suggested cuts drew as much reaction as the threat to the library. Residents clumped at the front of the crowded chamber wore bright blue T-shirts emblazoned with “Got books?” and held signs proclaiming “Kids need to read.”
Glatzel-Beck took the podium twice, pointing out that the city’s library is one of the most-used in Scott County. She worked on getting it built in the late 1990s, she said, and wouldn’t have believed then that she would one day be defending it before the City Council.
Some residents questioned how seriously the council was considering cutting the library, as well as the senior citizens’ program Club Prior, which is housed in the same building, and criticized the council and staff for “fear-mongering.”
“I feel like I’m being pushed into the position of, ‘Sure, go ahead and raise my taxes because I want my library saved,’ ” said Patricia Riordan, a Shakopee resident and longtime Friends of the Library member.
Former Mayor Wes Mader said he was certain the library wouldn’t close, despite its inclusion on the list of seven programs. “I have no idea why it was put on the list,” he said, “But you can probably guess why.”
“We were just trying to understand what all the options were,” said Council Member Monique Morton. “Everything had to be on the table equally.”
Doubts from some
Some residents wondered about options that weren’t brought to the table. Alexandra Matyja, representing the fiscally conservative Citizens for Accountable Government, asked for reduced spending in areas that she described as unrelated to resident needs, such as consultant fees for parking studies.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you that spending reduction is not a novel idea,” she said.
Matyja asked the council to take a leaf from the Minneapolis City Council’s book, pointing to its recently approved 2.2 percent tax levy increase.
Her comments drew murmurs, laughter and finally applause, causing Hedberg to ask for order “in the spirit of decorum and expediency.”
In his own comments at the end of the public hearing, Hedberg said he, too, opposed the 10 percent increase because he wanted more, not less.
Even with the full 10 percent, he said, some services would have to be cut.
“I don’t think that’s right,” he said repeatedly, at one point emphasizing each syllable with a tap of his pen.
While both Hedberg and Council Member Richard Keeney ultimately voted against the budget, the mayor and all four council members said they felt the 10 percent increase was necessary.
“I think it’s better to do it today than to keep kicking the can down the road,” Morton said.