When it comes to getting by with less in city taxes, Chaska is tops among Minnesota cities with at least 5,000 people.

But five suburbs in northern Ramsey County -- Falcon Heights, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, Little Canada, and Arden Hills -- aren't far behind, according to 2008 property tax levy and Local Government Aid (LGA) data compiled by state officials.

Chaska residents paid $184 a person compared with the statewide city average of about $500 per resident, according to records provided by the state Revenue Department.

Ramsey County suburbs account for half of the top 10 cities with the lowest per resident cost. Minneapolis, at $808 per resident, was the fourth most expensive.

The per capita figure is an indicator of local government efficiency, said Lena Gould, a policy analyst for the League of Minnesota Cities.

Lean living at the top

Lean running cities find a variety of ways to boost non-tax revenues or cut or postpone costs.

Chaska Mayor Gary Van Eyll said the city hasn't increased its tax rate for at least a dozen years. "We watch that and challenge employees to give great service and still have the lowest tax," the mayor said.

He said the city of about 24,000 was able to build a community center from increased commercial taxes generated by a tax increment financing district. The city also earned about $2 million in profit last year by being part of an electric power cooperative.

Ham Lake, a top 10 city at $306, saves money by buying used equipment, including a firetruck acquired from Fridley. Public Works Superintendent Tom Reiner drives a pickup purchased from the state when it was three years old for $12,000 -- saving about $7,000 on what a new truck would have cost, he noted. The city also rents space in a farmer's pole barn for lawn mowers, tractors and other seasonal equipment, rather than build storage space.

Big cities, big costs

Regional centers, such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington, attract out-of-town tourists, sports fans, shoppers and workers who use city streets, parks and police protection.

The levy and LGA data don't reflect special property assessments used by some cities, including Chaska and St. Paul, noted the league's Gould. The capital city's per capita rate was $485, ranking it 86th of 142 cities with at least 5,000 residents. That $485 rate would have gone up if the city had used a tax levy instead of $20 million in citywide assessments last year to pay for street maintenance, said Finance Director Margaret Kelly.

In contrast, much larger Minneapolis raised about half as much in special assessments as St. Paul, according to a 2007 state auditor's report. "Minneapolis chooses to use property taxes rather than ... property assessments to pay for most of our services," said Pat Born, the city's chief finance officer.

LGA shrinks for some

Local government aid is based on a complex formula that compares a city's financial needs to its property tax base capacity and to the average city tax rate and base. Cities with a low tax base valuation generally get more aid. A growing number of cities, 91 this year including Bloomington and Golden Valley, have a large enough tax base that they receive no aid.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658