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Commentary: Growth is expensive — and there are no free lunches


Property tax statements are out, and the hottest postings on “Next Door Prior Lake” are from homeowners seeing market valuations up as much as 20 percent. That’s big money and, while the reasons are complicated, the simple explanation from county appraisers is that a number of properties were significantly undervalued and needed correction. Not everyone is affected, but these increased valuations, and the higher property taxes that are sure to follow for those who saw the highest increases, are a preview of things to come.

It’s all about growth. Carver and Scott counties are the fastest growing counties in the metro area. Both have more than doubled their populations since 1990. Both counties also have higher effective property tax rates than the state average, albeit slightly.

Growth is expensive, and it doesn’t pay for itself. Growth means more infrastructure; roads, sewer and water systems, and other utilities. It also means more public services; police and fire protection, snow removal and the like and, as Prior Lake residents are learning, more classrooms and schools to accommodate increased enrollment. Bottom line, property taxes are going up and with them will come more traffic, noise, and environmental challenges to our quality of life.

There are, also, indirect and unintended consequences, which are subtler, but have longer-term effects. Prior Lake, like other suburban communities, gets its water supply from aquifers and deep wells. The water in these aquifers is hundreds, if not thousands of years old, some of it going back to the last glaciers. It’s a finite resource that takes hundreds of years to recharge and replace. Yet, because of development, water levels in the aquifer supplying much of the south suburban area have dropped as much as 40 feet in some places since the 1950s. The same situation exists in and around the community of White Bear Lake with the consequences visible and well known. A large swath of Prior Lake went completely dry in the drought of the 1930s. With climate change, it can happen again.

More young families are coming to Prior Lake, but at the other end of life and not widely discussed, is an aging baby boom generation that will transform Minnesota and the entire country. A 2011 report from the state demographer’s office predicted: “The 2010s will see Minnesota transform from a young state to an old state, from a work-based economy to a retirement-based, entitlement economy.”

With retirements, nearly as many people in Minnesota will turn 65 in this decade as in the previous four decades combined. By the end of this decade, according to the demographer’s report, Minnesota will have as many people age 65 and older as children in K-12 schools, and with them will come increased health care and medical assistance costs from the illness and disability of old age.

After paying off their mortgages and sending kids to college, many will end their working careers and enter retirement with scant savings and small pensions leaving Social Security and part-time jobs as their sole sources of income. Some may have to give up their homes being unable to afford growth-driven property tax increases.
Reliance on the property tax to pay for growth-driven capital improvements and local services creates a serious problem for retirees. Property taxes are regressive, taking a much bigger bite from smaller incomes. That and home values have no relationship whatsoever to the cost of city and county services. Higher property taxes are sure to provoke intergenerational conflict, especially over the upcoming school referendum.

What are the options given the pressures and the seeming inevitably of these changes and increasing costs? It’s naïve to simply accept them, ignore the consequences and turn to cheerleading, but it’s equally naïve to assume they’ll go away, because they won’t. Prior Lake isn’t alone. Communities in Oregon and Washington simply said no, pulled up the welcome mat and took steps to discourage development. Locally, Lake Elmo tried the same only to run afoul of the Met Council and developers. California has stiff impact fees that push development costs back on developers. That should happen in Minnesota, but it would take legislative action and face stiff opposition from landowners and developers.

For the moment the best option is to insist on sustainability, demand accountability from county and local government, and the school district and closely monitor and challenge budget increases. There are no free lunches.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-growth-is-expensive-and-there-are-no-free-lunches/article_cb88d2f4-c380-5736-b531-efd36db43225.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)