Paying for streets – two examples to ponder

On Tuesday, the Council passed a resolution calling for the assessment hearing for the reclamation project on Jefferson Road (here’s the packet and the Patch story).  The assessment is lower than the street reconstruction rate – 75% of the special benefit analysis amount with a 100′ cap on the number of feet of frontage to compensate for the wider than usual lots on this stretch of roadway.  I voted against it because the assessment on a collector street – a vital link to our southern shopping area plus access to several clinics and other residential streets – seems unfair.  Rather, Jefferson Road is part of the city wide transportation network of collector streets and, as such, should be financed by the city as a whole.

I was still pondering my vote tonight when driving back from Target on Jefferson Road.  I didn’t like my vote because it was counter to adopted policy and, as readers should know by now, I like to see good policies adopted and then followed rather than attempting to legislate on a decision by decision basis.

But then I reached the intersection of Woodley and Division where “Road closed ahead” signs are accumulating in advance of MNDoT‘s mill and overlay of TH (that’s trunk highway) 246 which is Woodley Street from TH3 to Division Street, then Division Street south out of Northfield to Nerstrand.   TH246 is classified as a minor arterial – a step up in volume/speed from a collector like Jefferson Road – another major link in the Northfield street network.  However, as a state highway, the residents along this route will not be assessed for the project, but their tax dollars will (indirectly, to be sure) pay for the project through state government funding.

My difficulty with assessments is something like this:  Infrastructure (streets, water, wastewater, streetlights, green infrastructure like parks) benefits the entire community and the entire community should finance the repair and replacement of these important parts of our city.  In addition, adjusting tax rates and capital planning to account for not using special assessments would eliminate the surprise of getting a letter saying you owe the city thousands of dollars and, I’d think, make taxes more predictable, transparent, and fair.

5 Replies to “Paying for streets – two examples to ponder”

  1. If residents only paid for the utility infrastructure replacement to their house (water, etc) when the street adjoining their property was being reconstructed what would cost to the city be without that resident contribution?

    Maybe a clearer way to ask is: what is the street reconstruction costs per foot, without the utility portion of those costs?
    What is the usual percentage of the total that the resident is assessed?

    It is rather difficult to even ask the question succinctly, but since there is no way to evaluate who uses what streets, how much … except for some obvious situations … it certainly would be more fair to have the city pay for all street repair except the utility service to the residence.

    Here’s an example: when there is a construction project on either side of where I live on St. Olaf avenue, the construction trucks go up and down all day, i.e. now with the Plum/Linden project, and a couple years ago when Lincoln was being rebuilt, resulting in abnormal ‘wear and tear’.

    Is there a way to make a clear evaluation of how much increased burden the city would have without the assessment/residents portion of the cost?

    *** An even BIGGER question: when is a policy which does not vary provide more equity , over looking at each project on a case by case basis?

    Not easy…

    1. I’ve done a very superficial research job to see what it would take to finance street projects without special assessments. I think assessing the costs without asessments would be relatively easy. The harder issue would be evaluating what procedural tools and tax policy would best allow the city to accomplish it. We have levy limits, debt limits, and some types of bonds count against limits and some do not.

      The advantage to special assessments is, obviously, to help defray the costs of improvements. The immediate disadvantage is that affected property owners get a substantial tax increase without much notice and in addition to any other tax increases which may occur. Jefferson Road really highlighted the fairness issue for me – certainly collector and arterial streets would seem to be community assets for which I question whether the immediate property owners should be assessed. I’m not sure where we can fairly draw the line, however, between our collector streets and the rest of the street network. I’m also dubious about the special benefit analysis, but I don’t have any good foundation for my doubts yet. I think how we finance street improvements is something which will be an increasing challenge as our streets age and our revenue streams don’t look like they have much room to be expanded. More work to do here.

  2. Betsey – In the abstract, I agree with your statement: ” Infrastructure (streets, water, wastewater, streetlights, green infrastructure like parks) benefits the entire community and the entire community should finance the repair and replacement of these important parts of our city.” However, because of the history of special assessments, wouldn’t it be hard to change the policy? What would you do about all the homeowners who are paying or have paid the special assessments for projects during the current policy period? Besides, isn’t there a statutory reqirement for property owner contribution to the cost?

    As you and I both know, because we’ve recently had infrastructure improvement on our streets, the assessment is considerable, and, if like me, the service to the house must be replaced, it is even more costly. However, I have anticipated this project and expense, as I’ve followed the city’s schedule, and wasn’t surprised by it. The schedule offers a homeowner, or someone anticipating purchasing a home, a way to anticipate the disruption and cost.( I also throught the city was very systematic and considerate in preparing my neighborhood for the work, by the way.)

    The council did the right thing, reducing the assessments for the Jefferson Road folks. Some may have thought they could have been lower, but until there is a consistent policy for collector streets, decisions will need to be made on a case by case basis.

    1. Very good questions…I have been wrestling with how one realigns policy when we have many people in town, you and me included, paying special assessments and we cannot afford to refund their money. Most people do not follow the City’s schedule, so I believe the assessment comes as a surprise. In my case, my block was not reconstructed even as all the surrounding streets were; it wasn’t on a schedule. Rather, my neighbors lobbied hard to have it included on last year’s project before the sewer failed, but it was not certain until December 2009.

      And no, we are not required to assess property owners. If we want to use the “429 process” referring to Minnesota Statutes Ch. 429 which spells out the process by which a city imposes assessments – this chapter gives cities broad power to make improvements and assess property owners, provides the timeline/process, and includes an appeal process for property owners (appeal is to the District Court). Ch. 429 does not prevent the city from using property taxes to finance improvements.

  3. Any time there is a policy change that affects peoples ‘pocketbooks’, they pay attention… but I think much less so with reference to $$ spent years ago (past assessment policies) as opposed to those flying out of one’s account in the near future… so I think a change which is ultimately better for all residents would be welcomed.

    After all, if nothing ever changed, Jane and I would not have ‘the vote’,and there wouldn’t be 27 (?) amendments to the Constitution…. and the Council would not be in the current situation of being asked to change the City Charter.

    ‘Elastic’ government, within reason of course, is the best government… and with all the analysis of the Constitution etc., on this 4th of July weekend, I think that is pretty generally agreed to by both pundits, and historians.

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