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Under the deal, approved by the board’s committee of the whole at their regular meeting in Hibbing, the county will assess all property in Duluth starting next year.
The city also will pay the county $375,000 in 2013 to help cover the cost of the transition.
“This makes sense for efficiency and for taxpayers. It’s a victory for Duluth and for all of the county. It’s a big step toward fairness,’’ said Steve O’Neil, commissioner representing eastern Duluth.
Duluth has been criticized by state officials in recent years for failing to assess commercial and industrial property in a timely manner, meaning those owners may be paying too much or too little and that other property owners across the county must make up the difference.
Having Duluth assessments conducted by the county was one of several major recommendations of a county blue-ribbon panel that met over eight months before releasing a report in February. The panel agreed there is too much variation in how property value is assessed across the giant county, with a confusing mix of private, township, city and county assessors.
The idea for the county takeover first was proposed in September, with county and city administrators hammering out details in recent weeks. The deal still needs approval from the Duluth City Council and final approval by the County Board, expected on Dec. 11.
Property assessors determine the value of property to figure what the owner of each parcel will pay in property taxes. Having accurate and consistent assessments is considered critical to making sure property owners are paying their fair share.
While all assessors operate under the same state laws and guidelines, it’s become clear in recent years that there is broad variation in how those are interpreted and enforced. In some high-profile cases, some local assessors for the county were missing entire properties — a problem that county officials say is unacceptable if taxpayers are going to have confidence in their government’s tax fairness.
The blue-ribbon panel said the county should work toward a single system, operated by the county assessment department, to determine all property value in the county, eventually eliminating other local assessment offices.
The move could save taxpayers a little money, too, by avoiding duplication. Duluth taxpayers, for example, have been paying for both the city system and their share of a county system the city didn’t use.
2013 budget advances
The County Board’s Committee of the Whole on Tuesday also moved forward the county’s 2013 proposed budget and levy advance to the full board for action, also likely on Dec. 11. The county is proposing a 1.5 percent levy increase for next year.
A Central Florida utility lineman shared the disappointing news last week that his 12-person crew, responding to help restore power in the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy, was blocked by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. A volunteer crew from Alabama told a similar story.
“It was like, ‘What’s the hold up?'” he said. “It turns out there was a 300-page contract that the union controlling LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) wanted everybody to sign first. We don’t have time for that. We’ve got guys ready to go. You need lawyers for this.”
The union’s problem, the worker said, was that union members make $47 an hour, but the Florida linemen would have been working for $35 an hour.
“I don’t care if you pay me $5 an hour right now,” the nonunion worker said. “Would you let us go up there and help?”
If this were a case where untrained workers – people who might be a danger to themselves and others – were being asked to handle high-voltage equipment, the union might have had a point. But labor organizations don’t exactly help themselves in the public relations department when they show such intransigence in the face of real crises.
SAN BERNARDINO – The City Council voted Monday to ask the Sheriff’s Department how much it would cost to outsource policing services, a decision opposed by most of the more than 20 residents and officers who spoke.
But it’s time to make tough decisions, the council majority said, in a meeting heavily shadowed by the threat of losing bankruptcy protection after a tense hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside that morning.
City Attorney James F. Penman and Mayor Pat Morris, who attended the hearing along with Councilwomen Wendy McCammack and Virginia Marquez, repeatedly warned of the dire consequences of not demonstrating the city’s seriousness about balancing its budget.
“If we can’t get into bankruptcy court and the protection provided by Chapter 9 we will have no city,” Morris said.
The decision would give the sheriff six to 12 months to prepare a set of detailed cost analyses, but in general the same officers would be employed for roughly the same pay, Penman said, based on a meeting with sheriff’s officials. That would have to be followed by a citizen vote to amend the charter, which would otherwise block the outsourcing.
Normally, Penman said, he also would strongly oppose the move.
“My hat is off to the men and women of our police department… I’ve always strongly opposed outsourcing,” Penman said, but bankruptcy protection is vital. “(Without bankruptcy protection), our creditors will descend on us like ants on a jelly sandwich.”
Morris said he wasn’t sure whether outsourcing was the right decision, but it was vital to at least look at the numbers.
Four members of the council agreed. Councilmen Robert Jenkins, John Valdivia and Chas Kelley opposed the motion.
Judge Meredith Jury said in court that city needed to file a brief by Nov. 30 arguing to eliminate or consolidate many of the reasons creditors had said the city wasn’t eligible for bankruptcy.
That’s part of
an extended timeline asked for by the city’s bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman of Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, but it might be tough for the city to meet.
City officials present at the court hearing said they didn’t expect the city’s pendency plan – a more complete version of budget plans that have cut the projected deficit from $45.8million to $16.03million – to be ready before Nov. 30, as had originally been expected.
And without that, Jury said, it may be difficult for the city to prove it’s serious about adjusting its debts – a requirement for cities to get bankruptcy protection.
“I think the city leaves itself open to exposure if it doesn’t get a pendency plan soon,” Jury said, saying that she wouldn’t give the city another extension. “You’d better have a good idea what it’s going to say (to include in the Nov. 30 filing).”
The two creditors who filed what Jury called substantial objections to the city’s bankruptcy – CalPERS and the union representing middle managers, the San Bernardino Public Employees Association – must respond by Dec. 14, and the parties will appear in court again Dec. 21.
The city had also sought to limit discovery – creditors’ right to request documents and other information before the trial – until the court agreed what issues would be part of the eligibility battle, saying that producing records that may prove unnecessary would be time-consuming and costly at a time when the city has limited staff and heavy workloads.
Jury said Glassman made a good argument, but she wouldn’t impose a stay. CalPERS’ attorney said he would try to cooperate with the city, but he wouldn’t agree to tie his hands, especially given his mistrust of city officials.
“I think (Glassman) has a client that provides misinformation… and may intentionally provide false information,” said Michael E. Lubic, attorney for the pension system, noting that the city is getting attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, sheriff’s investigators and others.
“The city does need outside oversight. There does need to be transparency, and we don’t have it.”
Lubic said the city had given him the impression it would continue making payments to CalPERS, which the city stopped at the time it filed for bankruptcy Aug. 1 because they said they couldn’t afford the payments. He said he understood the law to state that only employees should be paid before CalPERS.
Glassman said Lubic’s statement that he didn’t know the city was deferring CalPERS payments was “not credible.”