By: Garrett Neese
EAGLE RIVER - Citing the financial constraints of Keweenaw County and other rural counties, state Rep. Scott Dianda asked residents to contact their federal representatives to lift the tax-exempt status on land owned by nonprofits such as conservancies.
As an alternative, Dianda, D-Calumet, suggested a system similar to the state's Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, in which the state pays money to the county in which state-owned land is located.
"They have to take a look at what's happening across the whole country," he said. "This is probably affecting a lot of states. But when we're in states like Michigan and small populated counties like the Upper Peninsula, it's going to be more apparent because of the small (tax) base that they do have. So my suggestion on a federal level to these people is take a look at it."
According to the Keweenaw County Equalization Department, conservancy-owned land in the county takes about $64,618 of the county's taxable value off the rolls, and $99,194 of assessed value. When areas such as road millages, townships and education are added in, the numbers are $298,322 and $469,772, respectively, including about $35,000 each for Grant Township Schools and Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw.
The county would get a smaller amount - about $19,000 - if all conservancy land had Commercial Forest status. The state pays the county an additional $1.25 per acre each year.
Dianda said any change would probably also include lifting exemptions on property owned by religious organizations.
"None of us are against a church having property where worship goes on," he said. "There's also the other end of it, where there's so much property that's owned in the thousands of acres by different organizations that there's no income going to these counties."
County Board Chairman Don Piche said because the county has not met its payments on loans for the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, it is unable to apply for grants.
Tasks for which the county was routinely able to obtain grants, such as purchasing a new police car every two years, now have to be paid for out of the general fund, Piche said.
"Since I've been on the board, we've bought three cop cars, and the sheriff tells me we'll have to buy another one again in 2017," he said.
Eighty percent of the county's population is retired or on fixed income, Piche said, making it unlikely voters would approve a millage.
The Nature Conservancy recently purchased about 5,000 acres by Deer Lake. Piche said the County Board has received numerous complaints over the purchase, with some residents blaming the County Board.
"By law, we can't stop it," he said. "There's nothing we can do."
Garret Johnson, executive director of the Michigan Nature Association, which owns about 1,500 acres in Keweenaw County, said the MNA's properties have helped develop a tourism-related economy in the state. The MNA has also worked with local partners to create promotional materials that draw visitors, who then spend money locally, he said.
"It's a disturbing notion that people would be looking to raise taxes on the backs of charitable organizations that are providing benefits to communities across Michigan," he said. "I understand rural communities are strapped, and it's a challenge to find the resources to provide public services, but this is not a particularly constructive way, and I think there are better solutions that can be explored."