By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Many property owners aren’t too fond of Delano’s proposed assessment policy, and they have the signs to prove it.
A hundred 16-by-24-inch signs dot the yards of citizens, proclaiming “Not a Fan of Delano’s Street Assessment Plan” in bright red letters.
A group of people had the signs made in an effort to bring awareness to the proposed policy, and to let city officials know that they are in opposition to the plan.
“I just spoke to several others, and we’re trying to defeat it as best as we know how,” Delano resident Dan Vick said.
Since April 6, there have been five public hearings regarding the proposed policy, which was drafted in an attempt to establish consistency in the application of special assessments. It formalizes the existing assessment procedure for unpaid utilities, nuisance issues, legal challenges, and also outlines a new process for assessing street and sidewalk reconstruction.
The main concerns voiced by residents have been in regard to the street and sidewalk reconstruction portion of the policy, which states that benefiting residential property owners would be assessed 50 percent of the cost. Under the proposed plan, the remaining 50 percent would be paid through general city funds.
“I just think it’s an unfair policy all around,” Vick said. “It allows for favoritism, and creates extra cost for the project, with attorneys, assessors, and paperwork.”
Gordy Wetter, a former mayor of Delano, agreed.
“I’m totally opposed to it,” Wetter said. “The policy we have now is very workable. I don’t want to see any changes. Leave it alone.”
If the city decides not to implement a new assessment policy, it still has to deal with the issue of how to pay for road improvements, Delano City Administrator Phil Kern said.
“It’s a complex thing,” Kern said. “It’s not simply, do you want to pay an assessment or not. It has more to do with the city’s long-term financial system.”
There are basically three ways to finance street reconstruction, he said. The city could budget the yearly need as part of the general fund annual tax levy, utilize capital improvement/street reconstruction bonding authority, or assess a portion of the improvements and bond for the remainder.
Each choice has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.
“There are many layers to the discussion,” Phil said.
Budgeting as part of the general fund is not an available option for 2011, Kern said, because of the state imposed levy limit.
The second option, bonding, also poses challenges. The city currently has $10.6 million of its legal debt limit available for use.
“We could handle several street projects, but we might not be able to continue using this mechanism long-term,” Kern said at a public hearing in June.
By using the city’s bonding authority, payments are based on the property tax formula, and tax-exempt properties do not pay.
That leaves the third option assessing a portion to the affected property owners. This method would require tax-exempt properties to pay, and property owners could only be assessed for the amount that it increases the value of their properties.
However, if an assessment policy is implemented, there is no guarantee that a future council won’t switch to a bonding or general fund policy at a later date. If that happened, people who were special assessed could get stuck paying for their roads, as well as roads located throughout the rest of the community.
“That could very easily happen,” Vick said.
Kern acknowledged that possibility, as well.
“Understandably, that’s a concern,” Kern said, but added that even if the policy stays as is, there’s no guarantee that a future council won’t change to an assessment policy down the road, either.
“You make the best decision you can with the information you have,” Kern said. “Changing policy is never easy.”
Some Delano residents have thought of alternative financing options such as assessing the entire city equally, implementing a sales tax for the improvements, or charging a special fee for all licensed drivers but Minnesota law doesn’t allow for these methods.
Vick said he’d like to see the state laws get changed.
“Having a fee for licensed drivers would be a much fairer way of doing it,” he said.
In addition to yard signs, many residents have also signed a petition in opposition to the proposed assessment policy. Vick said he has personally gotten more than 160 people to sign, but there are many residents from other areas of town who have signed as well.
According to Vick, the assessment policy would most likely create “more rhetoric and bureaucracy.”
“I don’t think you can take care of a bad problem with a bad plan,” he added.
Vick’s disapproval of the policy isn’t meant to be an attack on Delano’s officials.
“I like everybody who works for the city,” he said, adding that “we’re all neighbors.”
Vick said he simply hopes that a fair solution can be reached.
Kern said he is glad to see that the public is getting involved, and he hopes that people are becoming educated about all sides of the issue.
“The city’s position all along was that citizens would get involved and get informed,” he said. “As with any public issue, there are going to be people on both sides of the fence.”
Consideration of the proposed policy is on the agenda for the Tuesday, July 20 Delano City Council meeting at 7 p.m. at Delano City Hall.
“We’ll see where that takes us,” Kern said.