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Lanesboro residents raise concerns over street assessments

Fri, Nov 14th, 2008
Posted in Government

The Lanesboro City Council adopted the resolution on assessments made for the Capital Improvement Projects. A final public hearing was held Monday evening, November 10 and the council spoke to a full house. Residents affected by both the Whittier Street and Maple Drive projects were there to ask questions and speak their concerns over the final costs.

Dillon Dombrovski of Yaggy Colby answered questions and explained the projects, as well as the assessment policy the city adopted earlier this year.

Dombrovski began by explaining that the projects are almost completely finished, and the last layer of asphalt will be put down in the spring. He added that the purpose of the public hearing was for the city council to consider any objections and to receive any written notifications of appeals to the assessment amount.

Before the hearing, the council received two written statements from residents. Robert and Marilyn Thompson and Harriet Dollar of Whittier Street object ed to the assessed amount and are planning on filing an appeal. By the end of the evening, the council had received a few more written statements.

Dombrovski summarized the final costs of the project, which came in higher than predicted at the preliminary hearing in the spring. The total cost of the Whittier Street project, which included storm sewer, curb and gutter, water main and street reconstruction, came to $524,343. The city covered 75 percent of the cost, and as per policy, 25 percent of the cost, or $131,085.25, was assessed to adjacent property owners. The amount came to about $61 a foot, which Dombrovski said is within the ballpark of what other cities in the area are paying for reconstruction.

The work done on Maple Drive, which was curb, gutter and pavement, was assessed at 100 percent cost to property owners because it was new construction. The total assessed cost of that project was $119,593.43. This amount came to $43.84 per foot.

Whittier Street

John Dollar asked about how the footage was figured out at his mother Harriet's home. He said she has the same footage as other people on the street but was charged more than anyone else. He added that she benefited very little from the project, only receiving new asphalt. She did not get any new sewer or water lines on her property.

"She is paying way too much for what she got," said Dollar.

Dombrovski explained that corner lots are assessed differently, with a 50 foot deduction. Dollar's property has side and front footage to consider. Since she is filing an appeal the council can look further into her case.

Robert Thompson, who also lives on Whittier Street, also had some concerns about the cost and how the project was carried out. He had previously, in July, asked the council to shelve the entire Whittier Street Project and wait and see what happened with costs in the next few years. He asked to see a list of exactly what improvements were done and what the costs were for each item. He also didn't find it necessary to tear out the entire curb.

"I just put in a new driveway seven years ago," he said. "And now I have to pay for it again."

Dombrovski reminded the group that there had been drainage issues with the curb and gutter on Whittier for many years. They had to adjust the grade, and he said 60 percent of the curb was coming apart. "It pays to have a good, clean project," he said. "Patching it wouldn't have worked."

Thompson commented that it is easy for a person to come from outside the city and tell the council what should be done, especially when they are being paid a percentage of the project cost.

"I wonder if the city is really looking at what's going on," he said.

Dombrovski assured him that the engineers do not get paid a percentage, they get paid a certain "not-to exceed" amount that is decided before the project begins. City Administrator Bobbie Vickerman said Thompson could review the contract with her if he wished to, and that there were no ulterior motives involved.

Mayor Steve Rahn spoke up in defense of the council. "We put a lot of thought into this, and have gotten a lot of input from others. We have to have engineering to do the job. This has not been easy for the council, either."

Dombrovski credited the poor economy as the reason for the increase in costs. Some people had an increase from the spring numbers of more than 22 percent. "Oil and concrete prices had gone up when the job was bid out in July. We reviewed it, and decided to go forward with the project. These costs are actually less than what we saw in July."

Bob Ohl mentioned the fact that if some of them choose to pay off their assessment all at once, they will be paying for work that has not been done yet. The final layer of blacktop will not be put down until spring. Dombrovski said the people who are paying the amount in their property taxes will not be paying anything until next spring.

Mike Lynch from Yaggy Colby spoke to the audience as well. "This is always difficult," he said. "As the city's infrastructure ages, the city has to go forward and replace things. These things don't last forever. They are trying to make it fair for everyone. The city is paying 75 percent of the costs. They have to have an assessment in order to bond. Twenty-five percent is as low as they can go."

Maple Drive

There was some question from Phil Holtegaard, who lives on Maple Drive, about when the bidding was done. "It seems like it was done pretty late in the game," said Holtegaard.

The preliminary assessments were done in April, and the bidding was done in July. Dombrovski explained that a feasibility study had to be done before the bidding, and that it takes time to have a set of plans for the contractor and work through the assessment policy.

Some people were concerned about not being informed or asked about the things that were done to their property. Thompson said nobody ever asked him about his driveway, they just dug it up. Ceil Allen from Maple Drive said the same thing.

"I didn't ask for anything I got," said Allen.

Allen was also very concerned about how her assessment went up 48 percent from the original amount. She asked about how the money was divided among the property owners. Dombrovski said they take the contractor's prices and the footage and divide it among residences. He said the two projects had to be done separately because they were assessed differently. The increase in the Maple Drive assessments was higher than the Whittier increase. Dombrovski said with Whittier being a much bigger project, the costs can be spread out more.

Vickerman reiterated that the city cannot bond for these capital projects unless they do assessments. According to state law, they can only go as low as 20 percent.

"The levy this year is $364,000. We would have to levy three times that to pay for one of the projects."

Council member Tom Dybing agreed. "If we paid all in one swoop, property taxes would be three times as much for the city portion."

Vickerman also mentioned that a city of 2,500 people or more receives state aid for street repairs, but Lanesboro does not. In fact, the city's general aid is getting lower. A local sales tax would help. But current legislation will not even allow the city to put the issue on a ballot and let people vote on it.

There was some discussion about whether or not property values were increased as much as the assessed amount. State statute says a city cannot assess for more than what the property value is increased. Gary Grebin, who owns lots on Maple Drive, asked Dybing if he felt the lots there had their value increased that much.

"That's a really tough call," said Dybing. "The only way to tell the difference in value is if we had another subdivision that had only gravel and we could tell the difference in the market value. That's the problem in little towns; we don't have those other properties. We would need four or five sales either way to be able to tell."

Cheryl Abelman said her property had been appraised at the start of the project and she was going to have another appraisal soon. She was wondering if she should appeal the assessment so that if there was a major difference they would know.

Dombrovski said written objection must be handed in before the end of the hearing. After filing a written objection, residents then have 30 days to notify the council they are going to file an appeal. They then have ten days from there to file the appeal with the district court.

Abelman's husband Bob stated that he felt communication was pretty poor toward the end of the project. He happened to be home one day when he noticed the painted approach lines for concrete in his driveway were wider than he wanted. He talked with the foreman to make it right.

"If I hadn't been there that day, they would have poured, and I would be tearing out concrete today."

Dombrovski apologized for the miscommunication.

The council discussed the matter before passing the resolution. Dybing abstained from voting as he lives on Maple Drive. The council agreed that in the future, when subdivisions are going up, the city needs to demand that curb and gutter and asphalt be installed before lots are sold so this doesn't happen again.

Other Business

The council approved contracts for FEMA for the damages done during the flood in June. The contracts include the wastewater treatment plant, the park cleanup, the dam, campground and softball field concession stand.

The council approved the results of the election. Rahn won his seat of mayor, Joe O'Connor won the two-year term, Dybing won a four-year term and Ceil Allen also won a four-year term on the council.

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