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Is raising tax rate for GF library legal?

A proposed increase in the property tax rate for the Grand Forks Public Library triggered some questions about the legality of doing so at the City Council's Finance Committee meeting.

A proposed increase in the property tax rate for the Grand Forks Public Library triggered some questions about the legality of doing so at the City Council's Finance Committee meeting.

Chairman Doug Christensen and fellow council member Terry Bjerke, who's not a part of the committee, said attorney generals' opinions seemed contradictory.

Bjerke had posed an identical question in July 2010, around the time the library's proposed expansion was under discussion. City Attorney Howard Swanson's answer then was essentially the same as the one he gave Monday night, but that didn't seem to satisfy Christensen or Bjerke.

The issue is this. State law says the maximum tax levy for a library is 4 mills, which the Grand Forks library is close to now. Increasing the levy above that level requires agreement from 60 percent of voters.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem had answered a question from the Ward County state's attorney in 2006 that was very similar to the question Bjerke posed. Stenehjem said so long as the county and the city have home-rule authority and their charters allow it, they can raise library taxes beyond 4 mills.

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]The caveat is they must still remain under the state-mandated cap for all the property taxes they collect.

Home-rule cities or counties have limited autonomy from the state in how they run their affairs, as provided under state law.

Christensen said another opinion in 1997 from then-Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp seemed more ambiguous. It mentioned that local governments may not levy mills beyond "numerical limits" for functions for which state law has placed "numerical limits," he said.

Swanson tried to explain that it is well established that numerical limits for local governments with home rule authority applies only to the overall cap on property taxes.

Grand Forks' cap is 130 mills and the city is 39 to 40 mills under that, according to Finance Director Saroj Jerath.

In a related issue brought up by Bjerke, he noted that a 1974 City Council had opted not to levy the library tax and have the county levy that tax. The logic was that city residents are paying double, once to the county and once to the city.

Swanson said the current City Council can do what it wants and isn't bound by past councils. He said he'll do more research on the attorney generals' opinions and come back with his findings.

Online: Stenehjem's and Swanson's opinions may be found at tinyurl.com/gflibrarytax. Click on item No. 4.

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