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Erik Burgess, Published January 22 2013

Moorhead looks to lower rural taxes, regulate adult entertainers

MOORHEAD – At least one councilman here is concerned that if the city doesn’t pass tax reductions on undeveloped farmland on the city’s perimeter, more rural landowners might file petitions to leave the city.

Two rural landowners, Michael and Peter Astrup, already filed a petition to “detach” land from the city, citing higher property taxes in the city than in Moorhead Township. Taxes levied by the township are about 13 percent of those levied by the city.

Minnesota state statute allows cities to set up “rural” and “urban” taxing zones. City taxes levied on rural parcels are about half of those levied on urban property. A parcel is deemed “rural” by state law if it is not platted and is undeveloped.

The council agreed Tuesday to have city staff draft an ordinance establishing such taxing zones, with Councilman Steve Gehrtz citing concerns that failure to do so might cause more rural landowners to leave the city.

“It would just set off a set of dominoes for all these other ones, if (the Astrups) were successful,” Gehrtz said. The council will get a first look at the ordinance in 30 days, city planner Kristie Leshovsky said.

If the ordinance were passed, 30 parcels – all farmland on the edge of town – would be deemed “rural” and thus taxed at a lower rate. To make up for the lost tax base, the remainder of the city would see a slight bump in taxes. A $140,000 homeowner here would see their taxes go up by about 83 cents.

Mayor Mark Voxland said reducing taxes on this rural land gives the owners incentive to stay annexed, making future city development easier.

Curbing prostitution

The council also decided Tuesday to draft an ordinance that would require workers in the adult entertainment industry to register with police, go through a background check and carry an ID card.

Police Chief David Ebinger asked the council to consider such an ordinance, a variation of which Fargo is also looking at.

Escorts, nude and seminude models and dancers who are otherwise working legally in the city would be penalized with a misdemeanor if they failed to register. Businesses providing the entertainers would be subject to the same penalties.

“It’d be just like selling alcohol without a license,” Ebinger said.

The photo IDs would include the entertainer’s real name, any stage names and their place of business. Police would produce the cards and run background checks. If any previous drug or prostitution charges came up, the person would likely not be licensed, Ebinger said.

He said the FBI recently ranked the Twin Cities metro area within the top 13 nationwide for exploitation of minors.

“We have a lot of prostitution running from that area out (Interstate) 94 into the oil fields,” he said. “It does involve runaways, the exploitation of minor children.”

On Backpage.com, a classifieds website, Moorhead has around 60 ads for escorts or dancers, which are often a front for prostitution, Ebinger said. Setting up a licensing system would curb this criminal activity, he said.

Some council members expressed concerns that passing such an ordinance would be like putting the city’s stamp of approval on the adult industry.

“I have no interest in giving people comfort about hiring strippers,” Councilman Luther Stueland said, adding that he found the industry “morally offensive.”

Ebinger said while they may be offensive, those kinds of services are legal, provided they are not cover-ups for prostitution.

“I don’t want to be the moral police. What I do want is to have enough regulation within this kind of sordid world,” he said.

The council will get a first read of the ordinance next Monday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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