by Paul Rignell
The Sherburne County Board voted unanimously Dec. 13 to certify the county’s property tax levy and a regional rail special levy for 2012.
Next year’s property tax levy will be assessed at a slight decrease (less than 0.1 percent difference) from 2011’s levy, for a total of about $41.84 million.
From the time the board set the 2012 preliminary levy in September, the elected leaders joined with department heads to determine how they could cut payroll and other costs to eliminate more than $1.12 million in expenses, to present a property tax levy that essentially stays the same.
County Administrator Brian Bensen reported 19 staff layoffs were issued in 2011, and those positions are not planned for reinstatement in 2012, for a savings of $1.05 million.
A few county residents who attended an annual taxation hearing the evening of Dec. 12 spoke of increasing taxes on their individual properties and pleaded with the county board to do more on its part to ease the burden in future years.
As for specific costs taken on by the county, however, multiple residents implored the board to hold back on any further support for the Northstar commuter rail line, which has run trains from stations in Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley into downtown Minneapolis since November 2009.
The board eventually voted to keep the 2012 rail levy at its exact amount for 2011, or $1.948 million. The county uses part of that money in support of Northstar commuter rail, and has used other funds in acquiring abandoned rail right-of-way along the Great Northern Trail, from Elk River to Princeton, where it plans to build continuous paved trails for non-motorized recreational use. Bensen told the Star News in September that the first trail blacktop could be poured sometime in 2012.
Proponents of Northstar commuter rail would like to see the train service extend through Becker and end at St. Cloud. Currently, passengers wanting to ride the rail to Minneapolis may take a Northstar bus link from as far as St. Cloud to Big Lake, at an additional cost to their train fare.
Sherburne County resident Jim Newberger of Becker seemed to be making a statement rather than really seeking answers of the board Dec. 12 when asking, “Would we be better off stopping this rail development until we have the money, until this economy turns around?”
Elaine Philippi of Baldwin also questioned the county’s support of Northstar and said she can see the abandoned Great Northern Trail line from her home. She asked, “Will we have to pay a long, long time to subsidize those tickets?”
One-way, weekday fares are $7 from Big Lake and $5.50 from Elk River for all passengers except for those with disabilities, who pay $1.75 from Big Lake, $1.25 from Elk River. Up to three children age 5 and younger can ride free with each paid fare.
Adult weekend rates are $5.25 from Big Lake, $4 from Elk River, and the weekend rates for youth (ages 6-12) and seniors 65 and over and all Medicare card holders are the same as the daily rate for riders with disabilities.
Round-trip family passes are available for $20 from Big Lake, $16 from Elk River, and good for two adults plus up to three youth (ages 6-17).
Rail fares have not increased since the line opened two years ago. The Northstar Corridor Development Authority on Dec. 1 approved a fare increase for riders using the bus link, effective Jan. 3.
With partial December data unavailable, Metro Transit representative John Siqveland told the Star News this week that Northstar commuter rail totaled 663,002 riders from January through November 2010. Daily weekday ridership is up about 9 percent over last year, Siqveland said, though January through November figures for 2011 totaled just 649,639 riders. “A freight derailment near Fridley in July — which took all rail traffic in the corridor out of service for several days and impacted schedules for many days thereafter — and fewer special event rides have impacted overall ridership,” he added.