Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, March 1, 1999
Sidewalk utility bill first of its kind in the nation originates in Howard Lake
By Andrea Vargo
An idea that started as a "what if" in the mind of Howard Lake City Engineer Brad DeWolf, has blossomed into a real-life bill before the Minnesota Senate.
DeWolf, city financial advisor Bob Ehlers, and City Administrator Christina Frankenfield were charged with the objective of locating funding for the new decorative sidewalks to be installed along Highway 12 during the improvement work in 2000.
Frankenfield explained that a user fee for sidewalks seemed the most equitable way to go. It doesn't increase property taxes, which are based on the value of a home.
With property tax increases, each person would pay a different share of the cost of building and maintaining sidewalks in the city, said Frankenfield.
"Everyone in the city uses the sidewalks at one time or another," she said, "even just to go to the post office."
The current method of funding sidewalks is the same for most cities, said Frankenfield.
"Cities budget for repair and construction, but some other perfectly legitimate thing happens that takes those funds. Something breaks or needs to be repaired, and the sidewalk money is just so easy to take," she said.
With a utility fund that is dedicated to sidewalks, it is much more difficult to sidetrack that money, stated Frankenfield.
"Once we decided to do this, we found out there was no such law to create that utility, and it couldn't be done," she said.
Frankenfield called the offices of Senator Steve Dille, R-Dassel, and Representative Tony Kielkucki, R-Lester Prairie and asked, "How do I make a law?"
The first thing she had to do was send in a paragraph of what she wanted on the bill to the Office of the Revisor of Statutes in St. Paul.
"This is where bills are created and written," she said. Once it was created, a copy was faxed to her to review.
Dille and Kielkucki were both happy to support the bill, said Frankenfield, and it is absolutely essential to have that support.
Dille and Kielkucki thought the bill would go to tax and local government committees in both the House and Senate, so Frankenfield had to call the chairpersons of each of those committees and explain why it was important to pass this bill.
She got nothing but favorable comments, she said.
The bill had its first reading January 28 on the Senate floor, and it was referred to the Local and Metropolitan Government Committee, chaired by Senator Jim Vickerman, DFL- Tracy.
Frankenfield testified, backed by Dille, Kielkucki, Remi Stone of the League of Minnesota Cities, Director of Small Cities Association Nancy Larson, and her assistant, Mari Pokornowski, last Monday.
"The chair introduced himself and welcomed us," said Frankenfield. "It was all very formal."
Each time Frankenfield spoke, it was always prefaced with "Mr. Chairman, Senator . . ." (whoever asked her a question) and then her answer.
She gave her presentation on why it was important to pass the utility bill, and the senators all listened very carefully, she said.
"It was grueling, but interesting," Frankenfield explained. "I was as prepared as I could be, and I knew all the answers to their question.
"Even though we were only in front of the committee for about 20 minutes, it felt like forever."
"Senator Steve Kelly, (DFL-Hopkins), concentrated on my every word. Then he asked why we weren't puttingthis on property taxes." Frankenfield said.
Kelly also reminded her that it is a utility and would not show up in the Truth in Taxation hearings.
Frankenfield replied that the city felt it would be more equitable for residents, since everyone uses sidewalks.
Senator Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, supported the idea of a user fee, and asked if the city had considered the creation of a street utility.
That is too controversial and is not the intention of the bill, replied Dille.
The structure of the utility concerned Senator Claire Robling, R-Prior Lake. She wanted to know how it would be billed. Would it go in with the sewer and water bills and would it remain the same for everyone?
Senator Carol Flynn, DFL-Minneapolis, said this is another scenario for creating a user fee, and she felt it was a fair way to fund it rather than raising property taxes.
Frankenfield compared the utility fee to a season pass for a county park.
"You pay an up-front fee per period (in this case, a yearly pass), and use it whenever you want, for as long as you want," she said.
"What would prevent a community from using this utility fee for trails in a city?" asked Senator Charles Wigger, DFL-St. Paul.
Dille said that is not the intent of the bill, but a community could include trails in its own definition of a sidewalk utility.
Senator Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, moved to accept the bill, and that was approved by most of the committee.
Now it will pass to the Jobs, Energy and Community Develop-ment Committee in the Senate, said Frankenfield.
"Now I'm waiting for the committee to tell me what to do and when to testify," she stated.
The bill will go before a total of four committees and the House and Senate before final approval. If it doesn't pass any one of the committees, it dies immediately, Frankenfield explained.
If it does become a law, it will affect cities all over the state. It could be amended anywhere along the process, say to require a public hearing instead of a simple vote by a council to establish the utility.
The senators had good questions, and Howard Lake will just have to wait and see if the bill will win approval, she said.
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