Gjersvik, farmers among those miffed over courthouse decision

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 19, 2002

The soybeans have gotten dry enough to harvest on Frank Gjersvik’s picturesque farmland near Manchester. Despite a better market forecast for crops this year than previous years, he feels uneasy about the future of farming.

The Freeborn County Board’s decision to issue $25.7 million in bonds leaves taxpayers responsible for paying $2 million annually for the next 20 years. Farmers’ share will be inevitably larger than the city residents because the burden will spread across all properties based on tax capacity.

&uot;This is going to be something I will think about the rest of my life,&uot; Gjersvik said.

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He estimates the additional taxes on his 470-acre farmland and homestead to exceed $1,000.

&uot;School districts desperately need money. Another thing that is coming up is the lake improvement. We also don’t know what’s gonna happen there. So our taxes could be very easily doubled.&uot;

One of the county’s arguments against holding a referendum on the courthouse was that the kind of bonding with a referendum would result in higher taxes for the city residents because it exempts farmland from taxation.

Gjersvik considers the logic deceiving.

&uot;I really don’t like to make this issue split the city people and farmers. I think it is the issue of where we were denied our right to decide how much money we are taxed, regardless to where you live,&uot; he said.

He thinks if the project were rejected by a referendum, there would be an opportunity for residents both in the city and rural area to sit together, review the plan and come up with something that everybody in the county could agree with.

Rural residents seemed to become vocal about the courthouse issue when the county decided to expand the project to include the demolition of the 1954 administrative building. They formed a group and collected 1,200 signatures and organized a public protest, demanding the county reconsider the plan. The group’s goal has evolved into a quest for a public referendum on the project, and they call themselves &uot;The Committee for Fairness.&uot;

&uot;First the courthouse facility, and then the jail and ’54 building. The commissioners just kept adding more and more and more,&uot; said Gjersvik. &uot;They say it’s good for the county. But I think putting up a grandiose building that does not generate any revenue just creates an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.&uot;

Representative democracy was another rationale for denying a referendum. The county administration and some commissioners defended their position that no decision can be made if the public votes on every public policy issue. &uot;If there had been a referendum on abolition in the Lincoln era, we may still have slavery,&uot; County Administrator Ron Gabrielsen once said.

Though he admits that the commissioners have some degree of discretion, Gjersvik still feels the democratic principle was violated in the courthouse discourse.

&uot;We have no qualms about ordinary expenditures of the county. But if we get something with this magnitude, where it is going to cost possibly $30 million by the time it’s all done, the people should have their decision in it.&uot;

Some new courthouse proponents emphasize the historic value of the old courthouse and say vacating the ’54 building would aid downtown redevelopment, maximizing the courthouse presence.

&uot;That’s just a pipe dream,&uot; Gjersvik said. &uot;There are many buildings that look a lot worse than the ’54 building. They should probably think about improving those a little bit.&uot;

&uot;Farmers are not against progress,&uot; he said. &uot;We just think there is a limit what we can do. It’s got to the point where we’re going to have a monster.&uot;