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No one satisfied with special assessment decision in Preston

Fri, May 16th, 2003
Posted in Features

Ron Laughlin surveys his sidewalk in front of his house on Spring Street (County Road 17) in Preston. Because of the Highway 52 road project scheduled for 2004, the county and city will replace storm sewers and utilities along the street. Laughlins curb, gutter and sidewalk, which was built new in the last 10 years, will be assessed at a cost of $4,422. Photo by John Torgrimson

Ron Laughlin stood on the sidewalk in front of his home on Spring Street in Preston on Monday evening looking northward toward Highway 52. Now, tell me how a new curb and gutter and sidewalk are going to improve the value of my property? Laughlin asked, an incredulous smile creeping across his face. There are no visible cracks in the cement on Laughlins sidewalk which abuts the curb and gutter at the roadway. It was put in new less than 10 years ago.This summer, Fillmore County and the city of Preston will put new storm sewers and utilities in Spring Avenue as part of the Highway 52 project scheduled for the summer of 2004. They have a temporary easement, Laughlin said. Theyre going to take out my curb and gutter and sidewalk, do their construction and put it all new back in the same exact place. On Monday evening at a special meeting of the Preston City Council, Laughlin learned that the work the county and city will be doing will end up costing him $4,422 for a new curb and gutter that he doesnt need.Special MeetingThe Monday, May 12, special city council meeting became necessary when the council was deadlocked at their May 5 meeting on whether to combine the Ridge Road and Spring Street road projects or treat them separately for the purposes of assessment. Both Ridge Road and Spring Street are part of County Road #17.If both projects were combined, and assessed equally, assessments would be $18.09 per lineal foot for all property. If treated separately, Ridge Road would be assessed at $9.10 per foot while Spring Street would be assessed at $29.88. On May 5, Mayor Dave Pechulis joined Council member Mike McGarvey in voting for combining the projects, while council members Heath Mensink and Jerry Scheevel favored treating the projects separately. With council member Mike Gartner out with an illness, the matter remained deadlocked. Equitability was the big issue on May 5 and it was the big issue again at Mondays special meeting. But this time, both Mr. Gartner and Mr. Pechulis were unable to attend the meeting, leaving a three person quorum to deal with the issue.Ridge RoadSeveral residents of Ridge Road spoke at the meeting about the special assessment, arguing that the project was approved in 2001, long before the county changed its cost share policy. They believed that they should be treated like the residents and businesses along Fillmore Street (County Road #12), who were not assessed for improvements.Former Preston council member Kurt Reicks, a resident of Ridge Road, told the council that the project was approved by the city council on a 3/2 vote on May 7, 2001. At that time, there was money in reserves to cover storm water, city and sewer, but it never proceeded, Reicks said. The council agreed to do the project without assessments.Gene Smith, another Ridge Road resident, said that when he met with county officials to sign easements for the project, he was told that there shouldnt be any assessments as they were built into the project to begin with.I am upset now, because all along my thinking was there should be no assessment on this project, Smith said. This project should have been let over a year ago.Council member Jerry Scheevel agreed in principle with Smith, If it had been done a year ago, we wouldnt have this problem now.Council member Mike McGarvey responded, the idea of no assessment hasnt even crossed my mind. He then turned to City Attorney David Joerg and asked for his views on the topic.Joerg, referring to the Ridge Road situation, said that the city has the right to make a special assessment even though the project has been paid for by another governmental unit, in this case the county. The assessment must be based on the benefit given, and cannot exceed the enhancement of value given, Joerg explained.But Joerg said he was worried about equitability. Special assessments must be uniform and cannot discriminate against one class of landowners versus another, he said. In my opinion, if there is a large discrepancy between one group and another, then one group is going to feel discriminated against.Joerg said that because the improvements for the two projects are comparable but assessments are not, he fears that there may be a large number of appeals coming from Spring Street residents.Common GoodJoergs comments raised the notion that perhaps the most equitable action would be for the city to treat both projects as a multi-government road project that benefits all residents in the community, with the cost burden falling on all property owners in the entire city.Reicks believed that this was a defensible position for the city to take, given the precedent set by the County Road #12 project.Mike McGarvey wondered whether this would set a precedent where all future street improvements would be funded this way.City Administrator Fred Nagle said that as there are not enough funds in city reserves, that any city-wide funding would have to be bonded for. This in turn would require a referendum, which would not be feasible given the time restraints of the project. Spring Street Mary Fisher, who lives on North Street adjacent to Spring Street, argued that residents in that area are having to pay for the Highway 52 project that will benefit everyone. I dont have a water problem on my street, Fisher said, referring to the high water by the Bowling Alley after a heavy rain. And, yet, I am paying $3,500 because of it. She questioned how the improvements would increase the value of her property. In the end, the city council voted two to one to treat the Ridge Road project and Spring Street as two separate projects. The motion was made by Council member Heath Mensink and seconded by Council member Mike McGarvey for discussion purposes. Later, Mensink and acting Assistant Mayor Pro Temp Jerry Scheevel voted for the motion with McGarvey in opposition.Twenty three property owners along Ridge Road will share $52,472 in assessments, of which approximately $25,000 has been deferred. The assessment is at a rate of $9.10 per foot. Along Spring Street, 43 property owners will share $131,493 in special assessments, a rate of $29.88 per lineal foot.Usually when a decision is made at a city council meeting there are clear winners. On Monday, no one attending the meeting was fully satisfied with the outcome. The property owners on Ridge Road felt that they were being assessed for something that was already paid for, and the property owners on Spring Street felt that they were being assessed for something that they never asked for that will end up benefiting everyone in the entire community.An assessment hearing has been set for Tuesday, May 27; 6:00 p.m. for Ridge Road property owners and at 7:30 p.m. for Spring Street property owners.

John Torgrimson can be reached at

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