(First published in the January 10, 2018 issue of City Pages)
City property tax increase turns out more than double what they expected
The city of Merrill passed its 2019 budget in November, with several resident urging the city council to vote no because of the tax rate increase. Ultimately the council approved an increase of 3%, still something constituents called a hardship.
Then came the tax bills in late December. Merrill residents were surprised and incensed to learn that the rate actually increased 7.4%. Even the mayor called it “misleading” and “very frustrating.”
“It’s my fault, it’s my administration, I’m the one who should be held accountable,” Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner says. “I’m hoping the personnel and finance committees will hold the employees accountable. It was a lack of communication.”
People packed the council chambers at Merrill City Hall Tuesday, taking turns calling out the city for deception and for the firing of City Administrator Dave Johnson and Finance Director Kathy Unertl. Every seat was filled as residents complained during the public comment period and signs were left in the hallways decrying the tax rate increase.
The city received more than 120 written complaints about the tax rate in a drive organized by Mark Bares, owner of Les and Jim’s Lincoln Lanes. Bares was the first speaker Tuesday, and at the end of his comments told the crowd, “Everyone come by for a free drink at Les and Jim’s.”
Johnson told City Pages that budgets and tax rates are complicated: The 3% applied only to the operating budget but not the overall tax rate which includes Tax Incremental Financing Districts and the city’s utilities, for example.
The issue seems to stem from the way the budget and tax rate increase were presented. The operating budget tax levy was listed separately, and the full tax rate increase wasn’t explicitly stated to residents or city representatives in meetings that misled everyone, including Woellner himself. He also told City Pages, “They elected a, at the time, 25-year-old mayor…It seemed almost desperate: ‘Please get someone in here to address these things.’ I’m trying.”
Merrill will hold a meeting Jan. 22, bringing in financial consultant Ehlers and Associates to better explain the budget and tax rate hike to residents. “There has been a huge loss of trust,” Woellner says. “Even if the finance director did explains things, I don’t know if people would trust her. I think it’s important for a third party to come in.”