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Cook County's levy to increase by 5.99 percent

During a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Dec. 11, the county set the final levy for 2019 at an increase of 5.99 percent. A vote by the commissioners to set the increase passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Bobby Deschampe and Heidi Doo-Kirk voting against.

Before the levy was set, Commissioner Deschampe made a motion to set the levy at 2.99 percent by using $170,000 from Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding from the federal government and $103,000 in reserves from the county's general fund. Commissioner Doo-Kirk seconded the motion, citing an intent to open the 2.99 percent increase to further discussion. Ultimately, the board did not vote to support Deschampe’s plan for an increase of 2.99 percent.  That motion failed by a vote of 4-1, with only Deschampe voting in support. Had Deschampe’s motion passed, a taxpayer in Cook County who owns a $180,000 home would have saved about $25 in comparison to the 5.99 percent increase. 

Cook County residents began receiving their proposed 2019 tax statements toward the middle of November, and there was a Truth in Taxation meeting on Nov 29. The proposed increase for Cook County since September was at 5.99 percent, which is what was approved Tuesday.  

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, there was an opportunity for citizens to address the commissioners. There was a large turnout for public comment on Tuesday, with nearly a dozen local residents addressing the commissioners to voice their concerns. Many of the issues raised during public comment focused on how the county spends its money and increases in local taxes.

Among those who spoke Tuesday was local resident Arvis Thompson. She questioned if the county has a long-term plan and any interest in reducing or limiting its spending.

Also speaking to the county board on Tuesday was Ben Peters, who said he attended a Speak Your Peace civility workshop on Monday night and found it to be worthwhile. He said it is fair to have challenging conversations at the county level, though there are serious challenges that increasing taxes and spending at the county level presents to local residents, including young families.

Additional public comments Tuesday came from Colton Thompson, who said he is a young resident of Cook County concerned about the future of the community; Carl “Pete” Gresczyk, who said good people in the community are moving away due to increases in taxes and poor spending choices by the county board; Chet Lindskog, who said there are tough decisions coming for the board, including what to do about expanding the local jail; and Lloyd Speck, who cited pay increases at the county level and other expenses that are a burden for local taxpayers.

Speck wished to continue talking during Tuesday's meeting but his allotted time ran out. Following that, Rae Piepho from Lutsen continued reading some of Speck's prepared script. At one point referring to Cadwell as a "dictator" and "evil," in the end only Jesus, not politics, will solve the struggles this country is facing, according to Piepho.

“Praise God he is coming again,” she added. 

Prior to the final vote to set the levy at 5.99 percent, the county board and County Administrator Jeff Cadwell responded to some of the concerns raised earlier in the meeting during the public comment period. With regard to staff wage increases that are impacting the budget, Cadwell said those figures don’t factor in that county staff now pay 20 percent of their health care coverage. Other concerns the board and county staff discussed included the total amount of reserve funds the county has, PILT funding from the federal government and staffing issues, including the hiring of new staff at the county. All of these concerns have a connection to the county budget and are reasonable discussion points, Cadwell acknowledged.
 
Speak Your Peace Meeting
In more news from Tuesday’s meeting, Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project, an initiative of the Duluth Superior Community Foundation, believes the best way to determine what a community wants is to listen to what its people have to say – a fundamental principle of democracy. A meeting was held Monday night in Grand Marais to focus on this initiative at the local level.

Rob Karwath from North Coast Communications and Monica Bruning from the Duluth Superior Community Area Foundation led the Monday night Speak Your Peace event in Grand Marais. The idea was to share a platform that can lead to civil dialogue in a community, including Cook County.

“It is a way for communities to advance themselves further and faster,” Karwath said of what Speak Your Peace is and is capable of doing for places like Cook County.

A statement shared during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting alluded to the fact Administrator Cadwell was “evil.” These types of references do not fit the Speak Your Peace model, Karwath said, though if someone did, in fact, feel that way about someone in the community, it is still worth discussing to find out why they feel that way. The key, Karwath said, is to open the avenues for healthy dialogue regardless of how challenging that might be.

Following a summary of the history of Speak Your Peace and how its principles are being implemented in northeastern Minnesota, the county board waited to approve a resolution adopting the Speak Your Peace guidelines.

Commissioner Deschampe said he would like to speak with other counties and his colleagues in county government before adopting the resolution.

The board agreed, voting to the table the resolution until January.
 
County Assessor
In more news from Tuesday’s meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, there was a discussion about the status of Cook County Assessor Todd Smith’s attempts to secure a Senior Accredited Minnesota Assessor license.

Smith was appointed as the county assessor on Sept. 27, 2016. This appointment was on a variance of sorts, as the official status of his position was contingent upon Smith obtaining his Senior Minnesota license. Smith had two years to obtain the license. The process of obtaining the senior credential for assessors in the state of Minnesota is done through either a standardized test or through an anecdotal study and thesis related to work done by a county assessor.

Smith had two years to complete one or both of these requirements. He took the test once and did not pass, though in October Smith said he was planning to take the test again within the next two months and had every intention of passing this time. Also, Smith is working on completing the other option of a thesis to fulfill the requirement as a backup option.

Smith was given a 90-day continuance by the county that expires Dec. 26, though that time period could be extended if the state department of revenue grants the request. The timeline for filing all the paperwork and getting this approved was not realistic, according to county staff.

An additional extension was requested on Tuesday that carries the variance until March 28. The commissioners approved the request on a 5-0 vote.