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Citizens have their chance to talk taxes

ST. PAUL -- Roger Urban thought he was stupid upon discovering he failed to file for a property tax refund.

Then he found out there are 350,000 Minnesotans like him because they also did not know about the refund. So when the chance came up, he suggested that the Legislature take action to make sure taxpayers know they may have money due.

The problem is, Urban said, the state does not adequately tell Minnesotans the refunds are available.

"There is a communications problem, I would say, since there are 350,000 involved," Urban told a House committee Tuesday.

A note about refunds on his property tax statement was not understandable, he said. "Blah, blah, blah" is how much of it read, he added.

Urban, an Eagan resident, suggested the better communications when Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, sought citizens' suggestions about how to improve Minnesota's property tax system.

Marquart, chairman of the House property tax committee, held up a thick binder showing his committee members that more than 650 people called or sent e-mails with ideas. He picked a half-dozen of the best ideas to fold into a citizens' property tax bill that he expects his committee to pass in coming days.

"I don't think we would have come up with most of these ideas," Marquart said of lawmakers.

The six citizen property tax ideas folded into the bill are:

-- Increase property tax breaks given to disabled homeowners.

-- Reinstate the "this old house" program that does not charge property taxes on improvements made to 50-year-old and older homes.

-- Begin a new tax classification for rural land not being farmed

-- Allow homeowners to pay property taxes in monthly installments from May through December instead of the existing twice-a-year requirement.

-- Allow cabin owners to avoid paying some property taxes until the property is sold.

-- As Urban suggested, give taxpayers three years to file for a property tax refund.

Marquart said that while the public often testifies in legislative committees, "it was really refreshing" to see citizens testify for their own ideas.

"It made an impact," he said.

Joining Urban was Thomas Hanson of Brooklyn Park, who urged return of the "this old House" program and Kathleen Stolte of Minneapolis, who suggested better property tax rates for the disabled.

Stolte said Minnesotans like her who are disabled cannot go out and get a better job to "offset the steeply rising taxes." A bigger tax break would help, she added.

Hanson said his neighborhood is running down because people can't afford to fix up their homes. A tax break would be part of the problem's solution, he added.

Marquart said rural Minnesotans also submitted ideas, but could not attend Tuesday's meeting.

John Ungerecht of Koochiching County in north-central Minnesota said rural land should be taxed at a higher rate than producing farmland.

"We farmers have our land rapidly increasing in value because people from outside of our area are buying neighboring plots and using them for unrelated purposes like hunting," Ungerecht said in a statement given to the committee. "Our land (value) should be rising at a level of farmland; it is rising to the rate of hunting land."

Urban showed the committee examples of how poorly the state tells its citizens about property tax refunds, some of which are based on a person's income.

He waved an income tax instruction booklet, saying there is "not one word in here about the property tax refund."

Urban also read from a property tax statement, which he said only an accountant or lawyer would understand.

"It would be nice if they sent a one-page statement in plain English," Urban said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.